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And so you ask, 'Comma, where do you belong?'

The comma is a diminutive punctuation mark—it is unobtrusive, yet it is a punctuation mark that is able to provide the much-needed clarity that both writers and editors strive to achieve in written communication.

While the comma does provide clarity when used correctly, the incorrect placement of this punctuation mark can cause someone to say “huh?” Many writers insert a comma where they would normally pause in a spoken sentence; however, this does not necessarily indicate its correct placement.

As you will see in the following example, an improperly placed comma can provide some confusion as to the author’s meaning. For example:

 “The tango was danced by Efrain, and Diana and the judge looked pleased.”
“The tango was danced by Efrain and Diana, and the judge look pleased.”

Notice how the placement of this one comma can change the meaning of the sentence. Was Efrain the only person dancing the tango, or were both Efrain and Diana dancing the tango? These are two completely different interpretations of the sentence depending on where you place the comma.

The following are some basic guidelines on the usage of the comma; however, this is not intended to be a complete resource.

“Yes” to the Comma

· Use a comma when connecting two independent clauses with a conjunction: and, but, for, nor, or, so, or yet. (A clause is independent when it can stand as a complete sentence.)

The teacher entered the room, and the students stopped laughing.

· Use a comma when separating a dependent clause that precedes an independent clause. (A clause is dependent when it cannot stand alone as a sentence.)

If it does not rain, we will have the party outside.

· Use a comma when setting off an interrupter.

The realtor, to our surprise, exceeded our expectations.

· Use a comma when a clause introduces the remainder of the sentence.

After having dinner, the family watched the movie.

· Use a comma when separating items in a series or list. Remember that commas are used to separate the items; a comma should not be placed before the first component of the series.

The car’s features include leather seats, automatic transmission, and keyless entry.

Incorrect: The car’s features include, leather seats, automatic transmission, and keyless entry.

“No” to the Comma

· Omit the comma when joining two independent clauses.

Incorrect: They have arrived, let’s sit down for dinner.

Correct: They have arrived; let’s sit down for dinner.

· Omit the comma when there is an identifying word that is essential to the meaning.

Incorrect: The automobile, Prius, is fuel efficient.

Correct: The automobile Prius is fuel efficient.

· Omit the comma before an indirect quotation.

Incorrect: The employees asked, whether they could leave early.

Correct: The employees asked whether they could leave early.

· Omit the comma before a parenthesis that introduces a comment.

Incorrect: The planes arrived at the gates, (A and B) and so the travelers got in line.

Correct: The planes arrived at the gates (A and B), and so the travelers got in line.

Whether or not you should use a comma, and deciding on its placement, can be a baffling decision. Keep in mind that its main purpose is to provide clarity to the target audience as to the author’s intentions. The comma may be small in size, but it is a powerful little punctuation mark. So do not be afraid of it—use it to your advantage.

One other little piece of advice:

“Throw water on the fire, man!” (Or maybe, it’s “Throw water on the fireman!”)