Instant Comma’s Gonna Get You
Know your comma rules.
Then break them liberally.
You absolutely must know your comma rules to be a copywriter. We’ve compiled them into the ten commandments below. Also, if some nosy stakeholder along the way questions your use of comma or lack thereof, throwing out words like ‘appositive’ or ‘nominative absolute’ is virtually guaranteed to shut them up.
The Ten Commandments
1. Compound Sentences
Use a comma to unite two independent clauses with a conjunction:
I checked into the hotel that evening, but I didn’t sleep a wink.
He was a simple man, and the smallest of tasks perplexed him.
I told you to go fuck yourself, yet you didn’t listen. If you had followed my advice, you would have never been faced with this unwanted pregnancy.
Separate items in a list with a comma.
Most American style guides (and the general American public) include a comma after the penultimate item:
The hotel features a French café, Chinese bistro, and Whiskey Bar.
Most British style guides omit this comma (AKA “the Oxford comma” AKA “the serial comma”). It would be written:
The hotel features a French café, Chinese bistro and Whiskey Bar.
Note: The Oxford comma can be included in complicated sentences that could otherwise lead to confusion or ambiguities. For example, it would be correct to utilize it here:
The breakfast set includes a fresh fruit platter, a basket of patisserie, and ham and eggs.
Her drawer was filled with whips, chains, handcuffs and restraints, and rubber duckies, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the last item.
3. Coordinate Adjectives
Use a comma between two adjectives in a phrase when both directly modify the noun. If you can add the word “and” in between the two adjectives without modifying the meaning, then these are coordinate adjectives.
So use a comma here:
A captivating, surreal experience
(“A captivating and surreal experience” makes sense.)
But do not use a comma here:
A little old lady
(“A little and old lady” does not make sense; the word “little” modifies the entire phrase “old lady”).
4. Contrasting Elements
Use a comma to set off contrasting elements:
This is a hotel, not a bloody circus.
It’s sweet, but not too sweet.
Note: In many style guides a comma before “but” in this situation is either optional or advised against. Use your copywriter’s discretion to decide what makes the most sense in the copy at hand.
5. Tag Phrases
Commas should precede question tags:
Snapple truly is the best stuff on earth, isn’t it?
6. Date and Location Formats
Use a comma when writing dates the way elementary school children do:
January 1, 2012
(As opposed to the more sophisticated format: 1 January 2012)
Also use a comma in locations and to separate elements within addresses:
The finest hotel in Kiev, Ukraine
Kiev, Ukraine, is not home to many fine hotels.
Notice the use of two commas in the second sentence.
Use a comma to attribute quotations to a particular speaker:
He said, “I think this is the best bagel I’ve ever had.”
“I think this is the best bagel I’ve ever had”, he said.
Note that British and American punctuation usage with quotations is very different. In British usage, never insert punctuation within quotation marks if it is not part of the original. Hence, the comma in the second sentence above fall directly after the closing quotation mark instead of directly before. The same is true of full stops and other punctuation marks. So you would write:
According to the General, this suite is “quite smashing”.
According to the General, this suite is “quite smashing.”
8. Introductory Elements
Commandments 1 through 7 are remedial. Numbers 8 and 9 is where it starts to get a bit more complex.
Use a comma after introductory elements, including clauses, phrases and words.
When I stumbled upon him, he jumped to his feet.
Because I love you, I will overlook your now hideously disfigured face.
Note that aside for certain exceptions, discussed in Commandment 9, you do not use a comma when the clause order is reversed. So you would write:
He jumped to his feet when I stumbled upon him.
I will overlook your now hideously disfigured face because I love you.
Long prepositional phrases (more than three words is a good rule of thumb):
After the big blue whale, anything seemed possible.
From the depths of my achey-breaky heart, I smite you Billy Ray Cyrus.
To be a good hotelier, I must give up my crippling ketamine habit.
Note: when the infinitive phrase serves as the subject of the sentence, never use a comma. (To be the best business hotel in Omaha is our ultimate goal.)
Much too complicated to define here in detail. To be honest, it’s one of those concepts that’s easier to just get a ‘gut feel’ for.
Here are some examples:
The hotel immaculately scrubbed, we opened the doors for business.
Our heads swimming with possibilities, we smashed the bottle of champagne.
The world [being] our oyster, we felt as if we could do anything.
If you want a more precise definition…it’s a phrase with a noun that functions like a subject and a verb that’s been turned into a participle or an invisible verb that’s implied and often includes other modifiers within the phrase as well. Google “absolute phrase” or “nominative absolute” if you really want to get your head around the technicalities of this.
Introductory modifiers of the entire sentence:
When an introductory modifier applies to the entire sentence – not just a single word or part of the sentence – use a comma.
Fortunately, we have plenty of vacancies.
You can often omit the comma in very short introductory modifiers.
Tomorrow, the Jeffersons will move up.
Tomorrow the Jeffersons will move up.
The two sentences above have slightly different connotations. Decide which works for you best stylistically in a given context.
9. Parenthetical Elements
A parenthetical element is any element – a clause, word or phrase – that is non-essential to the meaning of the sentence. A good rule of thumb here is that if you can delete the element without changing the overall meaning of the sentence, then you should use commas.
Essential modifiers do not use commas. If deleting the modifier fundamentally changes the meaning of the sentence, do not set it off with commas.
Many of the kinds of elements discussed in Commandment 8 can be parenthetical elements (but used in the middle or at the end of the sentence). Another common parenthetical element is an appositive. An appositive is an element equivalent to what it’s modifying – such as in the sentence, “Our best room, the Presidential Suite, is on the 79th floor.”
Additional examples of parenthetical elements:
The child, being quite a precocious chap, quickly debunked our argument.
We, the people of Zip-Zaggy Road, demand a bicycle lane.
This day, which shall live in infamy, has only just begun.
Notice the word “which” in the last sentence above. Which should be used only in non-essential modifiers. Essential modifiers use “that”. In some cases, the distinction is only one of emphasis and becomes more stylistic. In other cases, it is totally incorrect to transpose the two words.
For example, if you are talking about Hotel XYZ (your audience knows which hotel you are referring to) you must say:
The hotel, which is situated on a hilltop, has a great selection of packages.
The following sentence would never be used in that context:
The hotel that is situated on a hilltop has a great selection of packages.
This example is straightforward but can help you choose the proper wording for less clear-cut sentences.
Also note that when you add a modifier to a conjunction between two clauses, it becomes a parenthetical. This means you should not have a comma after the word “but” below:
I don’t know anything about the topic, but frankly, that won’t stop me from speaking on it at length.
For very short parenthetical elements in sentences with no chance of ambiguity, it is acceptable to omit the commas. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable (and once again a stylistic decision) to not enclose Mary within commas:
My wife Mary is stunning.
10. To Avoid Confusion
This is the catch-all rule. Add commas to indicate critical pauses or separate words and phrases that could otherwise cause confusion.
Outside, the garden is a welcome respite.
Outside the garden is a welcome respite.
Use the first sentence; the second could imply the garden is a hellish place.
Beyond the Commandments