Some of comma commentary is pretty straightforward. But there are a few grey areas, mainly around the Oxford comma, comma splices, and separating adjectives.
Use commas where you’d pause, if you said it out loud
Like in lists, or introducing something as an aside: ‘George Orwell, the writer, once said...’
Oxford comma: It can only help, never hurt
This is the one in bold here, before the “and”: George, Jess, Rebecca, and Fran are on the tennis squad. (It’s also called the serial comma, Harvard comma, and series comma.)
At The Writer, people are often firmly in one camp or the other. Kind of like the Capulets and Montagues of the writer world—we fight a lot and nobody wins. In the US, we tend to be (die-hard) fans. The thinking is: Oxford commas can only add clarity to a sentence.
It’s the difference between:
“We had lunch with the illuminati, Beyoncé and Cher” and “We had lunch with the illuminati, Beyoncé, and Cher.”
Without the Oxford comma, it would look as though we were suggesting Beyoncé and Cher are in the illuminati...and we’re not going down that road.
Note that in the original, the accent was missing from all the Beyonces except the second one.
A comma splice is where you use a comma to separate two independent clauses, when you should actually be using a semicolon, a dash or a conjunction (like ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘so’). It’s wrong (to be blunt). Because commas are used for separating, not connecting.
Spliced: Jude loves to travel, she goes on holiday whenever she can.
Each clause has a subject and a predicate and forms a complete thought—so it could stand on its own as a sentence. That means a comma doesn’t work.
Not spliced: Jude loves to travel; she goes away whenever she can.
Or: Jude loves to travel so she goes away whenever she can.
Or: Jude loves to travel—she goes away whenever she can.
If you read it out loud you should be able to hear it.
As is the unofficial theme of this guide, there’s always an exception. Famous comma splices include I came, I saw, I conquered which comes courtesy of Caesar (this is also an example of a poetic device called asyndeton), and this one from W Somerset Maugham in Of Human Bondage: ...often he sat and looked at the branches of a tree silhouetted against the sky, it was like a Japanese print...
So, splices are sometimes alright when the clauses are short and similar or as a poetic device. Or maybe Lynne Truss is right when she says: ‘so many highly respected writers observe the comma splice that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous.’
Separating a list of adjectives
Ever wondered where to put the comma in a list of adjectives? Well, it depends on the type of adjective.
Describe the noun but each adjective is doing its own bit of describing, for example, ‘a long, wordy email’. The email is both ‘long’ and ‘wordy’.
Don’t separately describe the noun. The adjective directly before the noun pairs with it, and then the adjective before that describes the pair. For example, ‘our most experienced in-house trainer’. The person we’re discussing is an ‘in-house trainer’. And they are the most ‘experienced’.
So how do you know if your adjectives are cumulative or coordinate?
Well, you can rearrange coordinate adjectives (‘a wordy, long email’) and stick an ‘and’ between them (‘a long and wordy email’). But you can’t do either to cumulative ones. An in-house experienced trainer? No way.
So, if your adjectives pass the rearranging or ‘and’ test, then you know you’ll need to separate them with commas.
Spot the difference
This is an interesting, concrete example. (Coordinate. You might write this in some feedback.)
This is an interesting concrete example. (Cumulative. You’re more likely to hear this on a building site. Or at the Barbican.)
*But, be warned. For native English speakers, it will feel very odd to rearrange certain coordinate adjectives. ‘Red, big truck.’ You see? This is because of a little-known, but universally adhered-to, rule about the hierarchy of adjectives. In English, we use adjectives in the following order:
opinion / size / age / shape / color / origin / material / purpose—NOUN.
So: ‘Beautiful, big, old, round, silver, French, metal mixing bowl’. Any other order sounds wrong.
‘Big, old, beautiful, French, silver, round, metal mixing bowl?’
‘Round, old, silver, big, beautiful, metal, French mixing bowl?’
‘My Greek, Fat, Big Wedding?’
(Just be grateful if you do this subconsciously and didn’t have to learn the rule in an English language class.)