Commas are a frustrating and confusing form of punctuation that many of us get wrong. It wasn’t until I began studying Professional Writing and Editing that I finally came to understand exactly when I should and shouldn’t be using them. So, I’ve decided to write a little blog post in the hope that it helps some other people out there.
There are only four types of commas we should use:
The top three you probably use all the time, even without understanding that you’re doing so. The fourth is a little bit more advanced, and appears to be falling out of use as our language and use of punctuation evolves.
A listing comma is the most common, and arguably the most simple. Put plainly, you use this when listing.
For example: I have two sisters, one dog, five chickens and a cat.
This comma separates each object for clarity. And what about the oxford comma (or serial comma)? I’m not a fan of the oxford comma, but it does have its use—clarity.
For example: I have two sisters named Kelly and Lacey, one dog, five chickens and one rooster, and a cat.
In this example, the oxford comma is used to separate the chickens/rooster from the cat. Some may choose to omit this comma, but I think it has value here for clarity.
Among listing commas we also have the super comma, which is a semi-colon. This is used when you’re making a list in which your objects may require commas.
For example: I have two sisters, Kelly and Lacey; one dog, Rex; five chickens and a rude rooster; and a cat who sleeps all the time.
The super comma separates each section to ensure clarity, and allows further description in your list.
A joining comma joins an independent clause and a dependent clause. (Independent, a sentence that stands alone and makes sense by itself. Dependent, a sentence that needs more context or an independent clause to make sense.) These sentences are joined by a conjunction (and, but yet, or, nor). If the clauses are long and each have their own subject, we use a comma to separate them¹.
For example: I didn’t want to go to the restaurant, but Tony begged me until I relented.
I studied Japanese in both Australia and Japan, yet I didn’t fully understand it until I moved over there.
A bracketing comma typically separates a section of information that is not integral to understanding the whole sentence.
For example: She didn’t like any vegetables, especially mushrooms, so she only ate meat and carbs.
In this sentence, the phrase ‘especially mushrooms’ is additional information that can be cut and still allow the sentence to make sense. The key here is ensuring your sentence can make sense without the bracketed information.
Another, more complicated, version of the bracketing comma only uses one comma (just to confuse you) and usually brackets off an introductory phrase.
For example: After she fell asleep, the cats decided to play a game of chasey around the house.
In this example, ‘after she fell asleep’ is not integral to understanding the actions of the cats, so it is bracketed off. The subsequent sentence makes sense without the introductory material. This type of bracketing comma is also used commonly in dialogue.
For example: “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
It separates the dialogue, which makes sense on its own, from the speech tag.
Important note: Bracketing commas are often misused when giving names, especially in journalism. If you were to refer to the current Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, you wouldn’t want to bracket out his name as ‘unimportant’ to the sentence, unless the name was, in fact, simply a side note for clarity.
The gapping comma is my least favourite, if you couldn’t already tell. A gapping comma is used to replace a word in a sentence, instead of using it several times.
For example: I have three apples, one red (apple), one green (apple), and one yellow (apple).
It can be confusing because its use is so similar to the linking comma in this context. But it is useful to remove the repetition of words.
Here’s an example from one of my previous posts in which I was challenged to use all four types of commas in the space of one sentence, which is super hard so its two sentences. Have a look through and see if you can identify each one!
It’s magpie season once again, and the bastards are out in force – swooping, stalking and heckling us native Aussies. We Australians love our native fauna, drop-bears not included, but of all birds, be they laughing, swooping or flightless – the magpie is the worst, and the bane of every spring.