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How to Use Commas for Clarity

Learn how to use commas for clarity from Gotham Writers' Workshop instructor Stephanie Paterik in this Howcast grammar video.


It's very tempting to overuse the comma. Oftentimes when we speak, we pause a lot in our speech and so when we write, we want to pause a lot as we're writing. But oftentimes those pauses that we perhaps use in our speech are not necessary in our writing. And it results in what I like to call the Jackson Pollock effect at commas where you might find your self just taking a paintbrush and splattering the commas all page over the page and it doesn't quite make sense where they've gone or why they're there.

So, it's important to not overuse the comma and make sure that if you use it, you really need to use it and it's serving a purpose in your sentence. Oscar Wilde said that he would spend the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking out a comma, which I think is a really great example about how much you can and should think about the comma. But there are instances where I would advocate for throwing in a comma and the biggest reason to do it is if it improves the clarity of your sentence. Here's a really funny and somewhat famous example.

It says, "Lets eat Grandma." Now in this case, there's no comma. What is the meaning of this sentence? Well, it would seem to indicate that we are advocating for eating our grandmother, which of course you don't want to do. So, here it's very vital to add this comma right here. Let's eat comma grandma. And this scenario we're talking to our grandma and we're saying, "Hey grandma, it's time to eat." So, punctuation, it saves lives.

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