When do you use a comma? – A steaming course of 5 minutes to keep the pace in your story

I would not call myself a comma fan (yes, that word is really in the dictionary). But I have to admit that sometimes I am too attached to the punctuation mark with which you can chop a sentence into pieces. When do you actually use a comma in the right way?

In my texts I often place commas in places where they do not belong, or in sentences that read much better without a comma.

This sentence was for example in my last blog post:

In my exciting novel Savelsbos there are many metaphors that, on closer inspection, are too ordinary.

When do you use a comma?
The comma is unnecessary here. Like more people, I have the annoying habit of announcing almost every clause with the punctuation mark. No need for anything, and you get the momentum out of your story.

You can read the above sentence just as easily, and perhaps even easier, without a comma.

In my exciting novel Savelsbos there are many metaphors that, on closer inspection, are too common.

How do you ensure that you do not delay your story with superfluous commas? And when is the punctuation mark necessary? You can read that in the short guide below, which I have compiled to correct myself and help others with the use of the comma.

Manual: when do you use a comma?
These 7 tips help you not to place superfluous commas, but also not to create a lack of clarity in your text.

Always put a comma between two person forms
When two verbs or personal forms in a sentence collide with each other (ie are next to each other), you always place a comma.

If you kiss me, I will give you a blow.
While we sing a song, we walk through the silence compartment.

Note: sometimes something looks like a verb, but it is not a verb and therefore nothing clashes.

We sing through the silence compartment
We did not like singing

(“Singing” is an adverb here, and “singing” is a noun. There is no comma in the sentences above)

Do not include a comma for a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is a clause that limits the meaning of the main sentence to a certain category or type. You can never omit a restrictive clause, because then the meaning of the main sentence changes.

I don’t like to eat sandwiches that someone has already taken a bite from.

In this sense, “where someone has already taken a bite” is the restrictive clause.

Do not include a comma for restrictive clauses. You then get the speed out of the sentence. The reader does not need to take a break to understand the subordinate clause.

Not:
That is a car that drove a dent in our garage last night.

Well:
That’s the car that drove a dent in our garage last night.

* The comma in the aforementioned sentence from my previous blog post about metaphors stood for a restrictive clause. I could therefore have omitted it.

Always set a comma for an expanding subordinate clause
An expanding clause is a clause that gives you additional information about a noun. This information is not necessarily necessary to understand the sentence. It is a kind of perk that you can leave out without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

Casette tapes, which almost no one uses nowadays, can no longer be found in most stores.

The subordinate clause “which almost no one still uses today” is expanding (you can omit it without affecting the meaning of the sentence about the casettes).

For an expanding subordinate clause you always put a comma, so that the reader and any listeners understand that this is a side path in your sentence, a block of extra information.

Not:
King William I, who came to power in 1028, was known as William the Conqueror.

Well:
King William I, who came to power in 1028, was known as William the Conqueror

Put a comma between adjectives if they can swap places. Between adjectives you only place a comma if both of them say something about the noun, but nothing about each other.

In that case they can change places without problems. Take the example:

The car ran on old, worn tires.

You can reverse these adjectives without changing the meaning, so you put a comma.

The car ran on worn, old tires

But in the following sentence you are dealing with a case apart.

The leader in the Tour de France had fallen in the mud. He was wearing a dirty yellow sweater.

Here you cannot swap “dirty” and “yellow” here without changing the meaning, so you don’t make a comma.

Do not include a comma before the conjunction “that”
If you use the word “that” as a conjunction (so to glue two equal sentences together) you should not put a comma. That gets the speed out of the sentence.

I think we’re going to win.

It is clear that the dog is tired.

We are happy that summer has arrived again.

In all these sentences, a comma is unnecessary.

A comma for “en” is usually unnecessary
Great the chance that the teachers and masters taught you in school that you never had to put a comma before and. They had a point.

As long as you connect two equivalent phrases with the conjunction “and”, a comma is indeed unnecessary. If one of the two phrases is much longer and more complicated, you better place a comma. Then confusion is lurking.

The sun warms my skin and sets the street in a clear light.
The man gave me an apple and a banana.

A comma is not necessary in these sentences. They are easy to understand. But you get problems with a sentence like this:

The man gave me an apple and a parrot sitting on my shoulder took a bite.

Halfway through the sentence the reader thinks: hey, does the man give you a parrot as well as an apple? You can clarify the sentence with a comma.

The man gave me an apple, and a parrot sitting on my shoulder took a bite.

(Some school rules are better off by the way)

Always put a comma after a salutation
If you write an e-mail or letter, always put a comma after the name or title.

Dear Mr. De Hond,

Sweet boy,

If a sentence ends with the person you are addressing, place a comma before it.

It was nice to have a tomato fight with you, grandma.

Read more about the comma?

As sources for this manual I used Writing Guide (perhaps the best advice book on language and spelling) and the indispensable Quick Play Guide from Onze Taal, which contains a separate chapter on the question: when do you use a comma?

The Snelspelwijzer is written by Wim Daniëls, who, on Twitter, gives a new meaning to the word “kommaneuker” (this was an expanding clause by the way).

Lotte sends a card to the children from her class, with whom she has experienced good times during the school trip in Greece.

With the comma after ‘class’ your reader will interpret the subordinate clause here as expanding. So Lotte treats everyone, and it is casually reported that she and her children have had a good time in Greece. This is probably what you want to say.

But suppose you forget to place a comma in this sentence:

Lotte sends a card to the children from her class with whom she has experienced good times during the school trip in Greece.

Due to the absence of the comma, your reader should actually interpret the subordinate here as limiting. Lotte therefore only treats the children from the class with whom she has had wonderful times in Greece.

In short: sometimes it is good to be a “comma fighter”.

* Order the Quick Game Guide here
* Order the Writing Guide here

* Undoubtedly in this article I have placed commas in places where I think you shouldn’t have done that. Let me know in the comments

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A few suggestions for good articles:

Why you can sometimes better remove adjectives from your text
With this simple recipe you write nicer sentences (7 tips for better sentence structure)
This is the ideal sentence length if you are writing for a wide audience.

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