Joke: A panda goes into a bar(café/restaurant) and orders food, eats, then draws a gun and shoots the waiter. Flabbergasted, the bartender asks him why and the panda tells him to look it up. The bartender consults a dictionary and finds the following: Panda, large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.
The joke is such a perfect example of the purpose of commas. According to The Gregg Reference Manual, the comma has two primary functions. 1) It sets off nonessential expressions—words, phrases, and clauses that aren’t necessary for meaning; and 2) it separate elements within a sentence for clarity.
The last line of the joke states that the panda “eats, shoots and leaves.” Quite a clever misplacement of a punctuation mark. Of course, we all know this is incorrect information. The definition should read “eats shoots and leaves.” No commas. The animal is an herbivore, not a murderer.
Now that we know how much damage commas can cause, let’s look at how to use them.
Proper Ways to Use Commas
The woman, who wore the red dress, was the first to enter the room. [This makes the comment that a woman entered first. Her red dress isn’t important. If her dress was important you would leave out the commas.]
Separating Items or Clauses
Items in a series (three or more): I love flowers, sun, and blue skies.
Clauses (used when two independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, nor): I don’t need to be rich, but I sure don’t want to be poor.
Introductory Elements (words or phrases that begin a sentence and come before the subject or the verb)
Well, I don’t know.
Yes, she can.
Before I make that call, tell me why this is so important.
NOTE: Use commas after all introductory phrases that begin with prepositions.
Commands (followed by an independent clause)
Look, I don’t know what you’re up to.
Don’t forget, I need your report by the end of the day.
Introductory Dependent Clauses (that precede an independent clause)
Before I make a decision, I need all the facts.
After they study all the information, they’ll make a recommendation.
Whenever possible, she’ll take a walk after lunch.
Dependent Clauses within the Sentence (that break up the flow)
Please tell us when, if possible, you’ll be in town.
We could stop by, if you don’t mind, to look at the new pictures.
Commas also set off transitional expressions (e.g., additionally, consequently, after all, generally, in other words, instead, anyway, at first, by the way, for example) and independent comments (e.g., of course, alas, fortunately, if possible, in my opinion, to be honest, as a matter of fact).
The above examples show some of the ways to properly use commas. Now let’s explore some of the ways commas should not be used.
Improper Ways to Use Commas
Separating two words/phrases/clauses joined by a conjunction
These notes and the ones from yesterday should be delivered now.
Separating two predicates (verb phrases)
Susan just arrived in Rome and is taking a tour of the Forum.
(no comma before “and”)
Between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction
Please take these shirts to the laundry. I need them as soon as possible.
[These are two separate sentences.]
After an introductory clause that serves as the subject of the sentence
Whichever dessert you choose will be fine.
That the homework is ridiculous is not the question.
Comma confusion is a common illness. Treat your symptoms with a Words of Passion coaching session. You’ll feel better in no time!