A Whole New World (of Commas!): The 3 Crucial Places You Need a Comma

You need commas!

Commas may look like little more than spilled pepper, and it might seem like a hassle to use them right, but they matter. Stick with me, and I'll have you using these little guys like a pro.

To keep this simple, I'm going to break down when you need to use a comma into three main categories (although there are others - these are just the most common ones that come up in students' creative writing):

1. In a list

2. After an introductory phrase (it's simple, and I'll explain. Don't panic)

3. Along with a conjunction when you're joining two independent clauses (again, don't panic. I'll explain)

1. In a list

Before I go to school in the morning, I need to feed the dragon, brush down the unicorns, build up the fire for the salamanders, and brush my teeth.

This first one is simple. I listed four things in a row there:

To connect them, I drop a comma between each. This is good grammar, but it also makes the list easier to read. Without the commas, your brain would read, "I need to feed the dragon brush," and for just a second, you might picture a fire-breathing hair brush with giant fangs and big, leathery wings. Putting in commas makes the list clear and easy to read.

(Note that the last comma in the list (the one before the "and") is called an Oxford comma, and some people skip that one. I like it, and I use it, because I think it makes your meaning more clear, but if you leave that one out, you won't be technically wrong.)

2. After an introductory phrase

Before I go to school in the morning, I need to feed the dragon, brush down the unicorns, build up the fire for the salamanders, and brush my teeth.

This one is also pretty simple, even if you don't know exactly what an "introductory phrase" means. Whenever your sentence starts with a little intro, you put a comma after that intro:

Inside the cyclops's stomach,I...

In spite of my love for the princess, I...

For the first time since gaining superpowers, I...

That's basically it. Pretty simple, right?

Note that in general, you don't need to do this for an introductory phrase that's smaller than four words (Examples:

After school I teleported home. -- "After school" is an introductory phrase, but it's short enough that you don't need a comma after it.

After the gorilla broke my finger, I learned to be more careful about poking others. -- That needs a comma because "After the gorilla broke my finger" is more than four words long).

3. When you're joining two independent clauses

Okay, this one might be a little more involved, but I promise it's do-able.

You need a comma AND a conjunction when you're joining two independent clauses.

Don't give up on me! This is easier than you think.

I'm writing a blog post, and I'm picking my nose.

Note the comma AND the "and".

I'm writing a blog post. That could be a complete sentence by itself. I could write that and put a period after it, and it would make sense. That makes it an "independent clause".

I'm picking my nose. That's also a complete sentence, and I could put a period after THAT. So I've got two complete sentences, and I want to put them together? I use a comma AND an "and":

I'm writing a blog post, and I'm picking my nose.

"But wait!" you say. "Can't I just say, 'I'm writing a blog post and I'm picking my nose?'"

NO! And here's why:

Say you're reading a fight scene, and you read:

I punched the horse and the dog bit me.

When you read that, your brain processed, "I punched the horse and the dog." Then you read, "bit me," and then your brain went back and made the mental correction and rearranged the scene in your mind. It probably happened so fast you hardly noticed.

But here's the thing: You don't want your readers to have to WORK to understand what you've written.

Give them commas where they belong, and they can read seamlessly without having to go back and fix their mental images:

I punched the horse COMMA and the dog bit me.

Now note: you don't need the comma if you're joining a DEPENDENT clause to an independent clause:

I'm writing a blog post and picking my nose.

Here, "Picking my nose" is a DEPENDENT clause. It can't stand on it's own; it wouldn't be a complete sentence if you put a period after it. So you have an independent clause and a dependent one, and you don't need a comma. Notice that as you read it, there's no way for your brain to misunderstand it as you go along.

I'm writing a blog post and picking...

"Picking what?" your brain asks.

"My nose!" the rest of the sentence answers.

And with that, you now know more than the author of this terrible Aladdin storybook!

See if you can spot the missing commas on this page (and bonus points if you pick up some commas that should be taken OUT):

Meanwhile, Jafar's parrot, Iago, stole the lamp from Aladdin's room.

That's a complete thought, an independent clause.

Jafar became the Genie's master.

Another independent clause. To join those clauses together, you need a comma AND a conjunction.

His first wish was to become the Sultan of Agrabah.

Boom. That's a sentence.

The Genie had to grant the wish.

There's a fine sentence by itself. How do we join two sentences into one? You know the answer. I'll let you finish editing this page yourself.

So there you go. Note that everything I've said about "and" applies in exactly the same way to "but". Merry Christmas!

**Here's a review I wrote of this book on Goodreads. I've thought about this way too much, probably more than the author ever thought about it.