What is the most common grammatical concern that people have when they come into the Writing Center? I have found that those pesky punctuation marks known as commas cause so much grief for the average college student. Either people use the comma too often, or they ignore the comma altogether. It seems like everyone either has commaphobia or commaphelia! There can be middle ground. This tiny punctuation mark can make all the difference in your writing. So, I’m going to give you the low down on the comma and some hard and fast rules that you can follow whenever you’re just not sure.
First up, let’s talk about bringing two independent clauses together. This task can occasionally seem daunting. How do you know if you have an independent clause? How do you know if a comma is needed? What are those FANBOYS people keep talking about? Take a deep breath. If both sentences can stand on their own, then they are independent clauses. “I went to the store” is an independent clause. “I bought milk” is an independent clause. These two sentences can be put together in a complex sentence as long as you have a conjunction and a comma. Conjunction, you ask? Yes! Here’s where FANBOYS comes into the picture. FANBOYS is actually just an acronym! The conjunctions included in this acronym are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. With these simple ingredients you can cook up quite a sentence. Let’s take our first example. Take those two clauses, one conjunction, and a little comma, put them together, and you will get a sentence that looks something like this: I went to the store, and I bought milk. However, if you do not have two independent clauses, meaning that one sentence cannot stand on its own, then you do not need a comma. For example, you could say “I went to the store and bought milk.” No comma is necessary. See! That wasn’t so hard!
So, that’s one way to use a comma, but there is another, more insidious comma that lurks around to confuse writers. This comma is used for introductory phrases. More often than not, you use words like after, before, until, while, when, because, as, even though, although, and as if in your writing. These words are called subordinate conjunctions, and, when used, they require a comma. For instance, you would say “After the movie, we should get dinner.” “After the movie” would be your introductory phrase that uses a subordinate conjunction. Therefore, it requires a comma after it. These types of introductory phrases are the most common, but you can also use prepositional phrases and conjunctive adverbs. A prepositional phrase might look something like this: “In the garden, flowers started to bloom with all the colors of spring.” “In the garden” would be the prepositional phrase. A conjunctive adverb would look like this: “In fact, I sold more cookies than anyone else in my club.” “In fact” would be the conjunctive adverb.
So, fear no more! Commas are not random punctuation marks that pop up in the English language just to confuse us. There are rules that, if you follow them, will make your writing more complex and interesting. If you have any other concerns, you can visit the Fredericksburg Campus Writing Center’s website for more information on commas and other pesky punctuation marks. You can also always come and visit us in Trinkle 107-A!