Rules for Comma Usage, or Why Reading Out Loud Is the Best

When I began this blog, I decided it was not going to be about grammar.  While I’m actually a big dork who loves grammar and teaching grammar – it’s like a big puzzle that you get to solve over and over! – it’s not that exciting to write about the difference between a gerund and a participial. 

Then I started a new school year, and remembered how terrified my students are of commas.  So…let’s do a little grammar. Just a little. It won’t hurt.

Actually your friend. I promise.

When my students fill out surveys I give them that ask what they would like to improve in their writing, “how to use commas properly” often ranks near the top of their lists.  I hate this, because using commas properly isn’t even that hard. We’ve just figured out all kinds of fun ways to make it hard.

Students who make the mistake of googling for tips on proper comma usage will find a deluge of lists that purport to instruct them on all the many, many ways and means in which they might have to use the comma.  Sometimes there are eight rules. Sometimes there are twelve or thirteen. Sometimes these lists contradict each other.  Sometimes they hear that commas are overused, or even abused, or perhaps underused.  And of course, if you place one comma where it’s not supposed to be, all the Educated People will laugh at you and refuse to hire you for any jobs.  No wonder commas make them nervous.

Don’t get me wrong: some of these lists and articles are quite informative, and I’m sure lots of writers find these lists helpful for jogging their memory if there’s one circumstance they’re not sure about.  But for students who already struggle with writing, the Comma Rules become one more thing to make writing a pain, and one more thing for them to hate.  Writing is too important for that.

My students tend to cope with comma fear by, to varying degrees, dropping commas at random into their sentences and hoping some of them might land where they actually belong.  Sometimes they think they remember The Rules, but they actually don’t, or they’ve misunderstood, or The Rule they learned is not actually a rule. It’s not uncommon, for me, to encounter multiple sentences per, essay that look a lot, like this one.  I especially encounter them when I’m staffing our writing center, where I help students with their in-progress written work in one-on-one conferences. When I tell them there’s a comma situation they need to sort out, they blanche.

It’s going to be okay, though, because there aren’t twelve comma rules you need to memorize.  There aren’t eight. There aren’t five. There’s one. Ready?

The commas go where you pause when you read.

Way back in my days of working the writing center in graduate school, when a student came to me with a comma-deprived or a comma-littered sentence, I would try to explain the exact rule for why the comma belonged where it belonged.  Sometimes the student would get it, but often the student would just write in the comma while looking even less sure of himself than he had when he walked in. Now, when I see the same sort of sentence, I used this method:

  1. Ask the student to read the sentence out loud.
  2. Ask the student where she thinks the commas ought to go.

And you know what?  About 90 to 95 percent of the time (yes, that’s an estimate, this isn’t a stats blog), they get it exactly right.  When they read out loud, they can hear where their pauses are, and they instinctively know some kind of punctuation mark needs to go there.  Sometimes, the pause is too long for a comma and we need one of the more sophisticated punctuation marks; most of the time, however, the comma does the trick.

Try it. Where do the commas go in this sentence?

I never expected that I would find my passion in owning a food truck but after years of driving around town with my mobile burger joint I’m happy to say that the joy the laughter the fulfillment and the delicious fries aren’t going away any time soon.

If you read it out loud, you probably noticed that you pause – and therefore need a comma – after “truck,” “joint,” “joy,” “laughter,” and, if you’re an Oxford comma adherent, “fulfillment.”* How many comma rules did you need to learn to figure that out? One.

To me, this is one of the keys to keeping writing instruction productive and fun, especially when it comes to grammar and mechanics: our students don’t actually need to be able to recite all the rules for comma usage.  That doesn’t make them understand their own sentences any better than having them memorize the words to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy helps them understand Shakespeare. They do need to understand the role that the comma plays in clear communication, which is to help the reader keep up with the rhythm and flow of your writing.

I’m a huge evangelist for the gospel of reading out loud, especially one’s own work.  What better way to know whether you’ve said what you intended to say than to hear yourself actually say it?  Reading out loud helps the writer’s voice grow and mature, and enables more productive and honest revision. But even from the very beginning, for writers still struggling with the basics, reading out loud and realizing that no, actually, you do get it helps the comma mountain to look more like the molehill it really is.

I told you it wasn’t scary!

*Yes, I use the Oxford comma. No, I don’t care whether or not you do. There will not be a future post about it. Sorry.

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