Real advice for real writers (and those who want to become one)

Three Comma Mistakes You Didn't Know You Were Making

March 13, 2017

Writers are creative masterminds—experts at making readers laugh, blubber, and panic over the right turn of phrase. Writers are free spirits and rule-breakers; they see the value of setting literary trends, and they fear it not. It’s an absolutely amazing thing.

 

Now for the next bit: some rules aren’t meant to be broken, particularly when it comes to grammar. In this post, I’ve come up with the three comma mistakes I see most often. I’m not saying rules can’t be broken on occasion, but I am saying that these rules can’t be broken. In examining them, perhaps you and I can more effectively meander our way through the dichotomy of literary standards and artistic inspiration. 

 

Mistake #1: The comma splice

 

One of the most common grammatical mistakes in modern Western culture is the dreaded comma splice. It’s seen everywhere—text messages, social media, even reputable publications.

Here’s a few examples of sentences with comma splices.

 

            I don’t want to know what’s happening, I’m happy right now.

            Can we go to dinner, I’m really hungry?

            Let’s go walking along the beach, the sunset is absolutely breathtaking.

 

Look familiar? I know—we’ve all been guilty a time or two. Why are comma splices, despite their popularity, considered grammatically incorrect? My theory is that, since the rule goes back to elementary grammar, it’s the easiest to forget. Thankfully, the problem is also extremely easy to solve. Just remember this: complete sentences must always end either with a period, question mark, exclamation point, or (in special cases) a semicolon. If you wish to conjoin two independent clauses into one sentence, they must be separated by some sort of a conjunction. In other words, never separate two sentences with only a comma. Study the revised versions of the three former examples.

 

            I don’t want to know what’s happening. I’m happy right now.

            Can we go to dinner? I’m really hungry.

            Let’s go walking along the beach; the sunset is absolutely breathtaking.

 

Mistake #2: Leaving out a comma when a sentence begins with an adverb clause.

 

Let’s break this one down, shall we? First off, let’s examine what an adverb clause is.

 

According to Max Morenberg’s Doing Grammar, adverb clauses “are subordinate clauses that function in the full range of adverb roles, including manner, place, time, reason, and condition” (221). Consider, for instance, the sentence below.

 

Jennifer Lawrence became hugely famous after starring in The Hunger Games.

 

In this sentence, Jennifer Lawrence is the subject and after starring in the Hunger Games is an adverb of time because it describes when Lawrence became hugely famous. Now, let’s flip the sentence around so the adverb clause begins the sentence.

 

            After starring in The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence became hugely famous.

 

Here’s where a lot of writers get mixed up. They think the comma after Games is optional. Actually, it’s rather important. Not only does it set the adverb clause apart, but it also alerts readers when to expect the independent clause to follow.  Otherwise, readers might have to scan the sentence a second time to catch where the adverbial clause ends, and more importantly, to understand the sentence in its truest intent. Remember, the goal is clear legibility. 

 

Mistake #3: Putting a comma between two cumulative adjectives (or not putting a comma between two coordinate adjectives).

 

Writers love adjectives, and for good reason. Adjectives beef up sentences and help readers form clearer pictures as they read. Still, when it comes time to implement two consecutive adjectives for a single noun, the rules of grammar can often become a little hazy. Take a look at the two following sentences, and note the difference in comma usage.

 

            Nelly was a ruthless, greedy girl.                   

            Gina was a beautiful Italian woman.

 

In both sentences, the comma’s placement (or absence) is quite intentional. It’s not an either-or situation. The difference lies within the type of adjectives each sentence contains; the first sentence is made up of two coordinate adjectives, while the second sentence is made up of cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives require a comma between them, whereas cumulative adjectives should never be separated by a comma.    

 

Here’s how to tell which one is which: coordinate adjectives may be rearranged, and if you were to add the word “and” between them, they’ll still make sense. For instance, it makes sense to say Nelly was a ruthless and greedy girl. Then, if we flip the adjectives around, it still works: Nelly was a greedy and ruthless girl. On the other hand, cumulative adjectives just don’t sound right when “and” is placed between them, and they can’t be rearranged either. No one would say Gina was a beautiful and Italian woman, nor would they say Gina was an Italian and beautiful woman. There you have it—it’s as simple as that!

 

Who would’ve thought that comma usage is so ridiculously intricate? As a college freshman, I sure didn’t. Alas, this grammatical stuff is pretty important because, as I said in my “Grammar Matters” post, excellent grammar promotes clarity and evades confusion. That said, I’ll leave you with the words of a beloved professor: “You have to know the rules to be good at breaking them.”

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