NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
The comma does have a purpose, beyond getting on our nerves, and that’s to break up sentences for a brief breath. Normally people would say a ‘pause’, which is true, but at their most basic commas are to represent that breath we might take before we finish our sentence when we speak. People often say we naturally punctuate our speech but never seem to mention that speech punctuation is individual. We have rough spots where we’ll pause but depending on a variety of things we may pause in places that wouldn’t be considered grammatical.
Often the recommendation is to read a sentence aloud and see where you pause but because of these differences in our use of language the comma pause may be different. A full stop is far simpler because it falls at the end of a sentence which is often the end of a comment. It’s not only language differences but learning disabilities make a difference too. With dyslexia, for instance, there’s a common tendency to add words or pauses unnecessarily or remove them all together when reading or writing, ergo complicating the comma. Therefore I would stress not worrying about commas as long as you hit the main points and are understandable. There is only so much time that can be spent moving commas about and imperfection is acceptable. Particularly when people can’t agree.
To begin with a comma joins two pieces of information together so if we go right back to basics we might try:
The cat sat on the mat.
This is a complete sentence with no additional information or complications but we may want to extend this sentence to add more information at the end:
The cat sat on the mat, which was brown.
Now we have ‘which was brown’ which won’t function as a separate sentence, only as an addition to the original sentence which means it needs a comma. We may also insert extra information into the middle of the original sentence with commas:
The cat sat, though it didn’t want to, on the mat.
‘Though it didn’t want to’ may be taken out of the original sentence and the original sentence will still work so it is, technically, not necessary. Sometimes when doing this it helps to think of the commas as brackets. People tend to have an easier time with brackets, perhaps because they clearly section of information where commas seem small and fiddly:
The cat sat (though it didn’t want to) on the mat.
With brackets we can clearly see that ‘though it didn’t want to’ is additional information and the sentence would still work without it. However, when we use this imaginary method it’s important to remember that we can’t place as much information between two commas as we can two brackets. Real brackets allow us to put several extra sentences in, our imaginary brackets are simply a visual representation to help us mark out our commas.
We may even join all of this together to form:
The cat sat, though it didn’t want to, on the mat, which was brown.
Alright, so I won’t be winning the Pulitzer Prize but I give you a ‘complex sentence’. Ta-Dah!
For more writing advice see my Advice Page.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.