A new feature for this week! In my day job, I’m an English teacher, and I’d like to share some of the finer details of the English language as I know it. I’m not going to laud myself as the be-all-end-all of writing, but I do know a thing or two, and I’ve made a career out of explaining it. I hope you find this in some way useful!
One of the most confusing elements of English punctuation, the comma causes the biggest problem for many writers. However, things aren’t as difficult as they seem with our little curved friend. It all comes down to understanding clauses in sentences.
A clause is a part of a sentence. That previous sentence was a one clause sentence, whereas this one is a two clause sentence. How do you tell clauses apart from each other? Usually, you’re looking for the main clause (the part that makes sense solo – EG: “That sentence was a one clause sentence,” which makes sense as a standalone sentence) and the subordinate clause (the part that needs the other clause to qualify it – EG: “whereas this one is a two clause sentence,” as that doesn’t make sense as a standalone).
Where to Place a Comma
Commas are often placed to separate these clauses, helping to make complex sentences. You’ll notice I’ve used a lot of complex sentences in this post. That’s deliberate. Look at where my commas are. Read each clause on either side. You’ll easily see which ones are main clauses (make sense alone) and which ones are subordinate clauses (don’t make sense alone).
Of course, commas are also used in lists. That’s generally not an issue, as we learn this at a young age. Unfortunately, the adage of “use a comma when you need to take a breath” is also taught at a young age. This causes problems, especially the dreaded comma splice…
This is when you use a comma when you should use a full stop, or sometimes a connective. This is a very common error!
INCORRECT: The dog is wet, she was stuck out in the rain.
These clauses both make sense as solo sentences, therefore they should not be separated by a comma. They should be separated with a full stop, or in this case, connective.
CORRECT: The dog is wet. She was stuck out in the rain.
CORRECT: The dog is wet because she was stuck out in the rain.
The reason we can use a semi-colon in this case is that the two clauses are both short and about the same topic:
CORRECT: The dog is wet; she was stuck out in the rain.
Thus, instead of a connective, we can use a semi-colon in its place.