Tag Archives: comma


CommaSutraTime to attempt to master another comma position in line editing: between adjectives. When using adjectives to describe a noun in sentences, at times you will need commas between them, at times you will not, and at times there will be commas between some of them but not others. Unlike with the intuitive comma use, often you can’t tell when a comma should or shouldn’t be used just by reading the sentence out loud. Fortunately, however, there is a rule you can use.

When using two or more adjectives, commas should be placed between those that describe the noun independently and separately. No comma is appropriate when the multiple adjectives are dependent upon each other. Diana Hacker (2009) in her A Pocket Style Manual refers to the distinction as coordinating adjectives and cumulative adjectives (p. 59-60). To test whether the adjectives are coordinate or independent, read them with the word “and” between them.

For example, from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters on page 13:

“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red, white, and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”

If you use “and” instead of the commas:

“I did not think again about the letter until I arrived home from school the first of March to find a thin envelope with a border around the outside like a red and white and blue candy cane and several canceled stamps addressed to me on our kitchen counter.”

This makes sense so the commas are appropriate. In fact, commas are needed so your words don’t read like they were written by a preschooler. In this case, you could also determine the commas are needed by reading it aloud. If you try to read it without, “outside like a red white blue candy cane,” you might pass out from loss of breath (especially because it is quite a long sentence anyway).

According to Hacker (2009), cumulative adjectives don’t describe the noun separately and reading them with “and” would be cumbersome and nonsensical. For example, from Missing Emily on page 12:

“A passing elbow collided with mine, sending my books flying to the floor in slow motion.”

Reading “A passing and elbow collided with mine” doesn’t make sense so a comma would not be appropriate. As has been the case with all of the Comma Sutra positions thus far, whether to use a comma or not is still a subjective decision to a certain degree. The “and”s might make sense to some but not to others. The important thing is to consider the use of commas in your sentences and make purposeful choices about whether or not to use them.



Hacker, D. (2009). A Pocket Style Manual (5th ed.). Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


CommaSutraPosition Three of the Comma Sutra in line editing addresses the commas which should occur between two, three, or more (though I wouldn’t recommend too many more) independent clauses in sentences. Usually, these independent clauses are connected by and, but, or or one of their siblings of nor, for, so, and yet. Or and nor bring up their own whole other issues – either, or and neither, nor – but that isn’t really about commas, so we’ll table the discussion for now.

Unless your sentence contains short independent clauses, you should use a comma before the and, etc. (the coordinating conjunctions) to, according to Diana Hacker in A Pocket Style Manual (5th Ed.) “tell readers that one independent clause has come to a close and that another is about to begin” (p. 58). As Ms. Hacker warns, this rule only applies to independent clauses.

Here are a couple of examples from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters:

Two short independent clauses where a comma is not necessary:

“I think she likes Mate but I am not worried.”

Longer independent clauses with a comma:

“I have not known what I should write to you, but I will try to answer the questions in your last letter.”

How do you know if your clauses are independent and whether they are short enough to omit the comma? You guessed it: read the work out loud. Read the clauses as their own sentences – such as “I think she likes Mate,” and, “I am not worried.” If they make sense as standalone sentences, they are independent. To determine if the length of the clause requires a comma, read the sentence out loud. If the meaning is clear, you can leave the comma out. If the meaning is confusing, or if by the time you finish the sentence, you are lost and don’t remember what the first part of the sentence said, you probably need a comma.

As with Positions One and Two of the Comma Sutra, this one has a degree of ambiguity, and it is open to varying subjective interpretations. What’s the bottom line? Seek out every coordinating conjunction and multi-clause sentence in your writing and question it. Make an informed, purposeful choice – comma or no comma – and go with it. Others may disagree, but you’ll have your thought-out reasons with which to defend yourself.

Source:     Hacker, D. (2009). A Pocket Style Manual, 5th Ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston/New York.

The Comma Sutra – Position Two

CommaSutraToday we’ll tackle the intuitive comma in line editing. The one you really can only know is missing by reading your words out loud. I know, I know – reading out loud is a pain in the backside and embarrassing, especially if your kids have their friends over, but it is mandatory to find proper comma placement.

I’ll use a couple of examples from my book, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, of how something might have made no sense if I had left the comma out.

Page One:

If I hadn’t used a comma:

“Always full of unwelcome surprises Dad changed these plans.”

Now, when you read it silently, you might not notice anything, but read it aloud and your speaking voice triggers your brain into questioning if Dad was the unwelcome surprise or if Dad delivered the unwelcome surprise? Change it to “Always full of unwelcome surprises, Dad changed these plans,” and it makes sense. It says what you (or I in this case) want it to say.

One more example from Missing Emily:

Page 87:

Without the comma:

“I peeked around the corner and saw them crouched down their mouths tucked into the tops of their pajamas giggling.”

How did they crouch down into their own mouths? Were their pajamas giggling? The correct way to (and the way I did) write it is “I peeked around the corner and saw them crouched down, their mouths tucked into the tops of their pajamas, giggling.”

Position two of the comma sutra is difficult because there are no hard and fast rules. The only way to decide on the appropriate location is to read the words out loud, or at the least deliberately, carefully, and slowly. Notice where you naturally take a pause while reading; put a comma there. If you find yourself needing to re-read a sentence to make sense of it, consider how a comma (or two) might help.


The Comma Sutra – Position One

The “Comma Sutra” posts were by far the most popular on my first blog, so I thought I’d repeat this one originally posted on September 1, 2012.

CommaSutraThe comma so perplexes me in writing and line editing that I think a whole book could be written on the topic. It is used in so many different ways and its usage is different depending on what you are writing and what you intend to say. I’ve gone from being a comma-abuser to a comma-avoider to everywhere in between.

Because of the complexity, I will concentrate on comma usage in a particular minute instance, and maybe one day, I’ll have it mastered. This week – the list.

I grew up hearing you always use a comma between the second to the last item in a list with three or more items and the conjunction (“and” or “or”) appearing before the last item in the list (unless, of course, a semi-colon is appropriate which is a whole other topic). Then when I became a paralegal, I was told this was wrong – you should leave out that comma. And then I read somewhere you should use the comma when writing lists in fiction but you should leave them out when writing non-fiction. Even when reading a Harvard Business School case for a class, I noticed there were no commas between the last two items in lists in the text – “proving” the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction.

To solve this confusion, I turn to the “experts.” According to A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition, on page 58, by Diana Hacker, you should follow the advice I received in grade school of “use a comma between all items in a series of at least three, including the last two.” Hacker acknowledges the paralegal no-last-comma camp but indicates “most experts advise using [the comma] because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.”

According to The Associated Press AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2009 Edition, you “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series” which appears to consist of three similar items (p. 355). The Essentials of English, 6th Edition, by Vincent F. Hopper, Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith appear to agree with Diana Hacker though it does admit it is “not absolutely essential” (p. 114). The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, also agrees with the comma-always mantra (p. 88).

So what will the Wordsy Woman do? Well, unless someone asks me specifically to leave it out, I will insert a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” or “or” in my list of three items or more.