Monday, August 12, 2019

R&R: Raves & Rants From Multi-Published Author Amanda Cabot

The Common Comma

Welcome back to our discussion of commas. Last December we talked about commas in compound sentences. This month we’ll address a few more uses of the oh, so useful comma. The good news is that most of these have simple, unambiguous rules.

Comma Love Word Graphic

Direct Address
The rule is simple. If you’re addressing a person in a line of dialogue, you need a comma or perhaps two to separate the person’s name from the rest of the sentence.

Consider the difference in meaning between these two sentences:
I don’t know Frances.
I don’t know, Frances.

In the first sentence, I’m indicating that I’m not acquainted with a person named Frances. In the second, I’m telling Frances that I’m ignorant of some subject. The second is, obviously, an example of direct address. That’s why I used the comma.

Here are two more examples of the correct punctuation of direct address:
Charlie, it’s time to leave.
I know how you feel, son, but we have to leave.

Simple, huh?

Question tags and parenthetical phrases are two more instances where the use of commas follows a simple rule.

Question Tags
Commas are always required with question tags. If you’re not familiar with that term, here’s an example of a question tag:
You know how to punctuate this, don’t you?

There are no exceptions to this rule. If you have a question tag, you must separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
To Comma Or Not To Comma: That Is The Question
Parenthetical Phrases
The same no-exceptions rule applies to parenthetical phrases. These phrases, which are used to either amplify a clause or provide a brief editorial comment, must be separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Note: The phrase in the previous sentence beginning “which are used” is parenthetical.

If you’re not certain whether a phrase is parenthetical, remove it from the sentence. If the fundamental meaning of the sentence has not changed, you’re dealing with a parenthetical phrase.

Here are a few other examples:
The day we chose for the picnic was, I’m sorry to say, the coldest day of the summer.
This rule, fortunately, has no exceptions.

Unfortunately, we’re dealing with English, a language noted for its exceptions. One of those occurs with the use of commas after introductory phrases.

Introductory Phrases
The general rule is that an introductory phrase needs to be followed by a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

Although I wish there were no exceptions, this is one time where there is one.

There’s no question about the punctuation of the preceding sentence. The introductory phrase must be followed by a comma.

But, you’re probably saying, you told me there was an exception. The exception relates to short introductory phrases, with short being defined as four or fewer words. In that case, the comma is optional, not mandatory.

While it’s deplorable there is an exception.

Notice that I did not use a comma after my introductory phrase, since “while it’s deplorable” is only three words long.

Don’t become complacent and think that “no comma if less than five words” is a rule. It’s merely a guideline, since – as noted above – the omission of the comma for short phrases is optional. In another example of the vagaries of the English language, this almost-rule has its own exception. You should use a comma if you want to emphasize the introductory phrase.

Although truly deplorable, there are exceptions to almost every rule in the English language.

In this case, I wanted to emphasize my introductory phrase. You probably guessed that from the use of “truly,” but the comma underscores the fact that I considered the introductory phrase to be important. Remember that commas do more than prevent confusing sentences. They also cause the brain to pause. My goal in adding the comma was to make you pause ever so slightly to consider my introductory phrase.
Comma Dictionary Page
And there you have it: four times when you need commas. But, as the infomercials say, wait, there’s more. I hope you’ll come back in October when we continue to explore the uses and misuses of commas.


Headshot Of Amanda Cabot
 A lifetime of reading and writing, not to mention a host of teachers who believed that good grammar was one of the essentials of life, have given Amanda Cabot such firm opinions about the printed word that I asked her to share some with us in her Raves and Rants posts.  

Cover Of A Tender Hope by Amanda CabotAlthough her working career was in Information Technology, Amanda achieved her dream of selling her first novel before her thirtieth birthday and is now the author of more than thirty novels as well as a number of books and articles for Information Technology professionals.  

Her most recent book, A Tender Hope, is the final book of the Cimarron Creek trilogy.

Find all of Amanda's books, newsletter info and social media links here.


  1. Simple, clear, and extremely useful. Thanks, Amanda, for all the great examples. I must say, too, Amanda's books are not only wonderful stories, but written properly as well. Cheers

  2. Amanda, comma's have always been troublesome. Thank you for help. Yet again, I printed off the pages and tucked them into my Writing Tips Notebook. I best go check and see if I used my comma correctly :)

    Hugs, L.A.

  3. Thank you Amanda for sharing! Like Leslie, I have a Writing Tips Notebook I have added this to.

  4. Amanda, great article. I know most of these rules but have noticed lately that dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences have used optional commas. Now I know why with the four word rule. Thanks for another great article!