You know how a lot of people’s favorite thing to say when they meet a nurse is: “hey, so I have this weird rash…”?
Well, when you are a copywriter, people really like to ask you about commas, and generally tell you about their problems with commas. Commas are the contact dermatitis of my world. People act like punctuation is some Secret Fancy Thing, and their favorite thing to blurt out when you introduce yourself as a copywriter is “Oh I don’t even know how to use a comma!”
I should say here I’m not really one of those bitchy grammar people who goes around correcting people’s writing or speech, unless of course I’m getting paid for it. Being a grammar bitch is a.) Not the best way to win friends and influence people, and b.) A good way to make people scared of writing, which is patently not what I’m about. I think everybody should write whenever the mood strikes. Go nuts.
However: If you are writing for people who you want to someday be your client or your employer, you have to know your shit. There’s no two ways about it, I’m sorry. So let’s learn to use commas.
The One Comma Rule That Works Every Time
Like most of the English language, commas are less rule-bound than most people think. There are plenty of times when they’re unnecessary but not wrong, times when they are most definitely necessary, and a few instances where they are just wrong. In my purely anecdotal experience, more people abuse commas through overuse than omission, which is too bad. If you’re unsure of how to use commas, I’d rather you use fewer of them than just sprinkle them on at random.
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty stuff, Grammar Girl is the place to go. (Start with this one about comma splices.) But, for daily use–emails, proposals, what have you, this is the trick you really need to know:
Read your sentence out loud (or, you know, silently, in your head. Don’t freak people out.) and listen for the spot where you make a natural pause. Do you hear that place where you take a breath or pause for a split-second? That’s where the comma goes. If you read your sentence out loud and it sounds weird and unnatural to make that tiny pause anywhere in the sentence, it probably doesn’t need a comma at all.
For everyday use, that’s pretty much all you need to know about commas. Really. Commas, unlike mysterious rashes, do not require professional consultation.
You should still get that rash checked out, though.