Key Words: A regular column from ACE and the Writing Center


If I had a tattoo for every student who comes to me in the Writing Center and says their biggest concern about their writing is “commas”, I would look like one of the guys in a band on my brother’s hard core label.

Why the fuss over commas? Well, because we write in order to be read. We communicate in order to be understood. Some commas help our readers read our words, and some help them understand our words.

Start with the breathing rule. If you read a sentence aloud and run out of breath before you get to the period, you need a comma. After that, follow these rules:

Use a comma after introductory words (Instead, However, Although, Thus, Also, Fortunately, Unfortunately, Meanwhile) when they introduce a sentence: “Thus, I wrote this column.”

Use a comma before and after introductory words when they introduce a second clause: “The column, however, did not write itself.”

Use a comma after introductory (or dependent) phrases: “With his pants hanging below his backside, he was unable to hug her for fear of losing them altogether.”

Use a comma when two independent clauses that each have a subject and a verb are connected by one of the FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so): “She wanted to be a better writer, but she wasn’t willing to work at it.”

Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off a clause, phrase or word that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence: “My favorite professor, Corey, is also a Shakespearean actor.”

Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that describe the same noun: “This is a short, sweet column.”

Use commas to help avoid confusion: “Let’s eat Grandma!” – OOPS! – “Let’s eat, Grandma!”

Use commas between items in a list. In a simple list, the last comma is optional: “I go to ACE to study, learn, chat and relax.” But, if the list might cause confusion, then the last comma is necessary. This is called the Oxford comma. “I dedicate this column to my parents, Kelsey and Julius.”