English Corner – The Utility of Commas

The Comma is an integral part of any English language sentence and while it may not come up all the time, it is likely to come up many of your sentences especially if they are longer than 10 sentences. The comma helps us to avoid run-on sentences or sentences that are too long-winded, which will distract the reader, and take away from the meaning of your sentence(s).

Commas should be used moderately to not to introduce many pauses within your sentences. You should be looking to use conjunctions in lieu of commas or with them depending upon the context. What you do not want to do is not use commas at all or use them too much. There is a key balance there that a writer in the English language must learn through trial and error as they develop their grammar proficiency.

What a comma (,) does in not just English but in other languages as well is to break down sentences into individual clauses with the comma acting a pause in the action to let the reader catch his or her breath. Commas are used in several scenarios but none as so important as forming a list of two or more items. In a list type of sentence, the comma is effective in separating the people, places, or things into an order from first to last to differentiate them.

If there are two or more items in the list, the comma will come before the conjunction (and, but, or) to finish out the sentence properly. This kind of arrangement forms the basis of the ‘oxford comma’, which is still being debated by English grammar scholars, but for which is popular with some English language students and is advocated for by certain teachers. The comma + conjunction combo is not only just for the oxford comma but for a wide variety of sentences.

If you had to summarize the main uses of commas in sentences, they function in terms of being placed between items for formal lists and they also establish separate yet interdependent clauses within a single sentence. The supplementary uses for commas involve being used between parts of speech such as adjectives, adverbs, and before quotations. Commas can also be used for dates related to days, months, and years in terms of how it is written.

Let’s break down the different uses of commas but listing a few examples for each type of popular usage:

Main Uses

1.      Building lists

·        Not only was Jenny captain of the Varsity soccer team but she was also President of the Chess club, and a member of the National Honor Society.

·        Felix had several things to get from the supermarket today: eggs, milk, bread, meat, and soft drinks for his daughter’s birthday party.

·        I think my grandmother, Jean, will be there along with my grandfather, Patrick, and my mother, Eunice.

2.      Separating the clauses

·        Jack wanted to go out with his friends to the movies, but he couldn’t do so because he had to finish his homework.

·        Lying to other people is not a good idea, and it often hurts other people’s feelings.

·        They were lost in the woods, hoping to get home by morning, but they were out of food and without a compass to guide them.

Supplementary Uses

1.      Adverbs and Adjectives

·        However, he was not guilty of the crime they thought he committed.

·        Moreover, they apologized to him and let him go free.

·        The dreary, sad day was encapsulated by the rainy weather.

·        President Franklin Roosevelt was fervent, unwavering in his belief in the American people’s ability to contribute to the war effort.

2.      Quotations and Dates

·        Mr. Johnson told his students, “You should always know how to use commas in sentences.”

·        LeBron was dismissive of the reporters stating, “I scored 50 points and did my best to help the team win the game.”

·        Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, United States.

·        Independence Day happened on July 4th, 1776 as the United States declared its independence from the British Empire.

As you can see from these examples, commas play a really important role in both English writing and in English grammar. There are several main uses and supplementary uses that the English language learner should be aware of. You must be able to practice each of these comma uses regardless of the purpose. In order to use commas properly, you must write your own sentences, make corrections if necessary, and get feedback from your teacher or your other classmates.

Each comma use is important whether its to separate sentence clauses, making a list of items, putting them with adjectives and adverbs, or using them for quotes or dates in those type of sentences. Without commas, you won’t have a complete sentence and you’ll run the risk of having a run-on sentence, which is what you want to avoid as much as possible in mastering English grammar and writing.

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