(I stole this picture from the Grammarly facebook page. They have hilarious literary posts! They also have a cool website where you can paste in your document and it will check it for spelling, grammar, punctuation, better word choice, repetition, plagiarism, and a ton more. I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I didn't want it to end up as the punchline of one of their facebook pictures!)
Since I graduated, I've been doing a bit of freelance work on the side, mostly editing other writers' manuscripts, but also tutoring college students with school essays. It's been enormously fun. I think I'm actually a much better editor and tutor than I am a writer, and the vast array of material is fascinating. The college students, especially, don't come with literary pieces. They come mostly with essays from other classes, so I've helped students with papers on streaming digital ciphers, Heidegger's theory, nuclear weapons, genetically engineered foods, and struggles with differences in race and religion. These people are smart people.
But most don't know how to use a comma.
In fact, they often start off the session asking me to help with that. "Can you check my work for punctuation and spelling?" They understand their content. They are medical students and engineering students and theology students, and for the most part they know how to write an intelligent paper. What trips them up are the little things. Things like commas.
It doesn't surprise me. I wrestled with commas in my own writing for a long time, and even now I will pause over one, wondering whether I should put it in or keep it out. When I taught junior high English classes, I struggled with helping kids learn the rules for commas. It seems like comma use is a bit hazier and random than other punctuation.
I think in my own youth I was taught to "put a comma where you'd take a breath." I think that is still taught. Could there be a hazier, useless guideline? Where I take a breath might not be where you'd take a breath, and what about all those people who talk non-stop without taking a breath at all?
Looking to things already published doesn't work either, because no one follows the rules there, either.
When my book was being copy-edited, the editor pointed out that I almost never used a comma between the two independent clauses of a compound sentence. "That's a rule," she wrote. I so doubted her that I spent an hour trying to find one website that said otherwise. I couldn't. Every list of comma rules out there says, in no uncertain terms, that compound sentences require a comma.
I challenge you to find a published book where that rule is uniformly followed. (Except mine. In mine, it is uniformly followed. Because my editor was sticky that way.)
There is a rule that you should put a comma after an introductory phrase, but if that introductory phrase isn't too long, you can omit it. There's no rule that states how long is too long.
Appositives are almost always set off by commas, unless the writer determines the appositive is necessary to the understanding. Then the writer can choose to omit it. At least until an editor comes along and says it's necessary.
You should use a comma to set off a sentence that shows contrast (The wind was warm, not cold.), but it's okay to decide to leave out the comma if you use the word but (The wind was warm but chilling.). However, if you want to put a comma before the word but, that's okay, too.
No wonder writers of all ages are anxious about how to use commas.
In one paper I was editing, I was marking out half the commas and putting in a bunch of others, and my student said, "Boy. I either put in too many, or put in too few, but I never do it right." I told her I'd give her a few websites that had the rules for comma use on them and give her some tips, and she nearly cried with thanks. "That would be so helpful!"
I wish it was as cut and dried and helpful as she wanted it to be.
One of the top websites on comma rules - an educational one at that - said in several of the rules, "If there is ever any doubt, use the comma, as it is always correct." Then, the very last rule was, "Use Commas with Caution. ...The biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse."
I'm banging my head on the keyboard now.
Maybe the best advice is this: know the basic rules. You can find an easy list here and here. When in doubt, though, use a comma when you need it to avoid confusion. Like the example above, no one wants to cut up a bunch of kids. At least we hope not.
(I should disclose that Grammarly contacted me with an offer to "sponsor" this blog post, which I was already writing. Usually I don't take offers like that, but I've been a fan of Grammarly for a long time. They offer a quick check of your text for free, but that only gives you a list of problems found. If you want the full service, it costs (after a free trial membership). Of course, this won't be for everyone, but I think it's very useful for students or people who are self-publishing, or writers that are getting ready to submit something to an agent or publisher and just want to make sure it's clean without paying an editor.)