Litmosphere Comma Guide
Commas are often misunderstood and misused. There are times when comma usage is truly a matter of style; comma usage may also depend on where you live in the world. However, there are times when comma usage is objective, and it is important to be aware of the guidelines. The following guide is based on both the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines and Litmosphere style choices. Commas are often the subject of great debate, so I will justify my guidelines as I can with other sources you can explore if and when you desire. This guide is not exhaustive, but it should help you with some questions you may have about comma errors.
I would recommend that you bookmark this page and come back to it when needed! I will be adding outside references as I come across them.
Commas and Coordinating Conjunctions (And, But, So, Or, For, & Yet): For many years, some students were taught that a comma should NEVER precede an “and.” This is not correct according to the Chicago Manual of Style. While the rules involving commas and conjunctions may seem complicated, it’s important to learn them because punctuation gives us clues as to the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes comma placement can change meaning, and it can disrupt the flow of reading if a comma is placed incorrectly.
The main thing to remember when dealing with coordinating conjunctions is this: you must put a comma before the conjunction if the clause that follows it is complete—that is, if it has a noun and verb and could be a sentence all on its own. If what follows the conjunction is not a complete clause, do not put a comma.
From the Chicago Manual of Style - 6.22: When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other coordinating conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction. If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted.
Here is an example:
"My mother took us the library, and we brought home stacks of books."
So: A Special Exception – The “complete” clause rule only applies to “so” in some cases. For example, consider the following sentences:
"I wanted to take my daughter to the zoo so she could see the lions."
"We asked the janitor if he could show us the way so we wouldn’t get lost."
You can see that the clauses “she could see the lions” and “we wouldn’t get lost” are, in fact, complete clauses. However, because the sentence is talking about something that will happen as a direct result of what happened in the first clause, there is no comma needed.
Further reading on coordinating conjunctions:
Commas and Subordinating Conjunctions: (Because, After, Though, When, etc.)
Subordinating conjunctions are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. That is, comma usage is a little complicated to explain. I will add some resources for you to look over as I can. Check out the one below for starters.
Further reading on subordinating conjunctions:
The Oxford (serial) Comma:
Few things are more hotly debated in the writing and editing world than the Oxford Comma. If you are unfamiliar with this term, “Oxford Comma” refers to the comma placed before the conjunction at the end of a series. (Example: "I like to eat apples, oranges, and bananas.") Depending on how complicated your series are, using the Oxford Comma is most often a matter of personal preference. However, there are some cases when the Oxford Comma is absolutely needed in order to make the meaning of the sentence clear. Check out this YouTube video.
My advice is to use the Oxford Comma in all cases. Most editors, including me, encourage authors to minimize comma usage, but in the case of the serial comma, I believe it is better to insert it every time.
Parenthetical Phrases: Parenthetical phrases are phrases that contain “extra” information that could be cut from the sentence without damaging the meaning. In formal papers and publishing, Litmosphere Editing recommends using commas or em dashes instead of parentheses, although this is another style choice.
Examples: "I was so excited to discover this program, a program designed by someone I respect, and have used it frequently."
"Ice cream, while tasty, is fattening."
"My mother, because she is so kind, offered to babysit the kids."
Further reading on parenthetical phrases:
Comma Splices: A comma splice occurs when you marry two complete clauses together with a comma. This is probably the single most common error I see in manuscripts. Here is an example: "Han Solo was a wonderful pilot, he really knew how to fly his ship." It can be tempting to write using comma splices when you feel your clauses go closely together. Thankfully, comma splices can be fixed easily by making the statements into two separate sentences or by replacing the comma with a semicolon or em dash. (Some publishers prefer the em dash over the semicolon, but either is acceptable.)
"Han Solo was a wonderful pilot. He really knew how to fly his ship."
"Han Solo was a wonderful pilot; he really knew how to fly his ship."
"Han Solo was a wonderful pilot—he really knew how to fly his ship."
Commas Between Adjectives: When listing adjectives before a noun, it is often difficult to know when to insert commas. A simple rule you can use to easily discern whether a comma makes sense is to insert an “and” between the adjectives.
Examples: "The girl had long brown hair." (It “feels” awkward to say: The girl had long and brown hair.)
"We all live in a large, wonderful yellow submarine." (Saying: We all live in a large and wonderful yellow submarine seems natural.)
Appositives: An appositive renames a noun that is beside it. Appositives should be set off with commas (kind of like a special parenthetical phrase.)
Examples: "Willow, my daughter, is sweet and beautiful."
"I went to the store with my mom, Lori."
Further reading about appositives:
Vocative Comma: When addressing a person in dialogue, a comma should precede the person’s name AND follow the person’s name. This rule applies to pet names as well.
Examples: "Hello, Mary, my name is Martha."
"Hey, baby, we need to get going."
"Can you please stop, honey?"
"Yes, sir, I will do that right away."
Commas Before Too, Though, Then, etc.: This guideline is the subject of much debate, but my recommendation has been formed based on the Chicago Manual of Style. According to CMoS, commas before “too” and “either” (when used to mean “also”) do not need a comma before them when they appear at the end of the sentence. However, if “too” and “either” appear in the middle of the sentence, a comma before and after is recommended. (Section 6.52) Now, CMoS does not specifically say anything about “though,” “then,” or “anyway,” but it is the recommendation of Litmosphere Editing that these words be treated in the same manner. Commas before them are simply NOT needed for comprehension and only clutter the text.
"I want to go to the store too."
"Can we take the car though?"
"Sure, we will get there sooner then."
"My leg hurts anyway."
"My sister, too, wants to go with us."
General comma usage:
Q: Is it true that commas should be used whenever there is a natural “pause” in speech?
A: My answer: This is true in only some cases. It can apply when you are writing dialogue or very informal first-person narration, but this rule should not be applied broadly.
People all speak with different rhythms. Inserting a comma whenever you *feel* like a pause should be there can make your writing chaotic and can lead to errors. It is best to follow the known comma guidelines instead of inserting commas where you feel a pause is needed.
Check out this article about comma usage: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/commas/
Further reading on the comma: