Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ask the English Teacher: Comma On Over

Reader XL said...
"I think I overuse commas. Can you recommend a good source to check regarding comma usage?"

Well, XL, I took the liberty of running on over to your web site, and I'd say you've got commas fairly well in hand. If you're a person with a pretty good understanding of the rules of English, and you seem to be, I'd recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
It is considered by some to be "the Bible for good, clear writing."  I find it a little technical, so you might like something a little less formal.

A lot of people like Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. I think it's a fun book, but I think diagramming sentences is fun too, so don't go by me. Truthfully, in her section on commas, Truss spends a lot of time discussing the history of the comma. It's a very controversial punctuation mark; in fact, my own daughter has very strong opinions on it. Once you get past the whole controversial history, her explanations of when and how to use the comma are very clear.

My personal favorite is Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English . I'm sure you'll learn a lot from Chapter 8: "Comma Sutra: The Joy of Punctuation." Her explanations are simple and down-to-earth. You don't need to have an English degree to figure out what she's talking about.

I hope this is helpful to you, XL, and of course, you can always come here for answers as well. Thanks for stopping by.


  1. Do I have controversial opinions on commas? Which ones? I mean, I have many opinions on commas, but I wasn't aware any were controversial. I thought they were all, you know...correct. Any non-idiot will no doubt agree.

  2. Oh, I'm sure you're right, Alyssa, but I wouldn't want to get you started on the Oxford comma dispute.

  3. My. son. is. 5. and. learning. to. write. He. has. just. discovered. the. period. and. likes. to. put. a. period. after. each. letter. I. find. it. adorable.

    But don't worry, I'm teaching him proper period placement. I fear the comma though, as I have difficulty myself.

    Have I mentioned how I love that you and Alyssa go back and forth in the comments section? I do.

  4. Momnextdoor, 5 is such a fun age! As long as he's not doing that when he gets to 8th grade, I'm cool with it. Commas aren't that tricky, but it doesn't help when elementary teachers tell kids to just put them wherever they would pause when reading it aloud. I have to unteach that before I can teach the actual rules.

    I'm glad you enjoy our silly banter. I do too.

  5. Well, well, well, here's the thing. I was commenting on another of your posts and looked over to the right of my screen to see that I had missed one of your posts. How timely, because, I had in fact deleted that comment several times because of too many commas!
    I shall seek out the books you mentioned, because my rule was to use them when I would pause in speaking.
    I had no idea that commas were something to be thought about, for much of any reason. Especially controversy. Now the semi-colon... there's something to think about.

    1. See? This is such an educational blog. And I am shocked, Alisa, that you could have missed one of my posts. Perhaps you were sick that week. Please send a doctor's note so I can excuse you.

  6. I am so glad I went back through all of these posts. I'm going to purchase Woe is I right now. I'm always worried about my comma usage. It, is, just, such, a, fun, punctuation, mark. (Sorry)

    1. Great, Jennifer. I hope you find it helpful!


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