7 Common Comma Issues

Sad comma

Make your commas happy when you use them correctly!
Photo by Tanya Hart (Flickr)

Comma placement is sometimes surprisingly difficult. Many writers assume that they know where to place a comma — until an editor deftly removes or adds one. Often, with commas and with many other things in life, less is more, but that’s not always the case. Here are a few common comma conundrums that give many writers pause:

1. Placing a comma outside of quotation marks

Incorrect: “Heat of the Moment”, “Karma Chameleon”, and “Don’t Stop Believing” are great songs to rock out to.
Correct: “Heat of the Moment,” “Karma Chameleon,” and “Don’t Stop Believing” are great songs to rock out to.

With rare exceptions, commas and periods should be placed inside the quotation marks. Other punctuation marks have their own rules. For instance, semicolons and question marks often go outside of the quotation marks. This is different in British English, which can confuse some writers.

2. Using a comma with “that” instead of “which”

Incorrect: She liked the cookies, that were filled with raspberry jam.
Correct: She liked the cookies, which were filled with raspberry jam.
Correct: She liked the cookies that were filled with raspberry jam.

“That” does not require a comma, as it’s an indication of a restrictive clause. “Which” requires a comma and indicates a non-restrictive clause. Most automated grammar-checkers will find this error.

3. Using a comma to separate a verb from its subject

Incorrect: Her wonderful and charming guests, enjoyed Marvel movies.
Correct: Her wonderful and charming guests enjoyed Marvel movies.

This is easier than it sounds. Look at your sentence and simply ask yourself if a comma is necessary. Would removing a comma change the meaning of your sentence? In this case, it doesn’t. The comma is not needed.

4. Using a comma to identify inaccurately

Incorrect: The superhero, Spider-Man, does what a spider can.
Correct: The superhero Spider-Man does what a spider can.
Incorrect: The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury wears an eye patch.
Correct: The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, wears an eye patch.

This is an identification issue. The difference in these examples is that one of them identifies a specific person. The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. is only one person: Nick Fury. The other example identifies many people. A “superhero” could be Superman, Spider-Man, or Batman. In other words, we’re not giving Spider-Man a title. The following sentence is also correct:

Correct: The spider-like Marvel superhero who also goes by the name of Peter Parker, Spider-Man, does what a spider can.

5. Creating a comma splice between independent clauses

Incorrect: He needed to run to the store, Jane wanted soda.
Correct: He needed to run to the store; Jane wanted soda.
Correct: He needed to run to the store. Jane wanted soda.
Correct: He needed to run to the store because Jane wanted soda.

The comma splice is a common grammatical issue. If two sections of a sentence are separated by a comma and each clause can stand on its own as a sentence, then they need to be separated by a period or a semicolon (and not a comma). You could also add a conjunction like “and,” “yet,” or “but.” In the example above, I used a subordinating conjunction.

6. Using extra commas with month/year dates

Incorrect: Star Wars hit theaters in May, 1977.
Correct: Star Wars hit theaters in May 1977.

This is a simple tip to remember. Dates that only have the month and year do not require commas. “May 25, 1977” does require a comma, of course. Our style also allows you to write 1977, 1970s, or ’70s as well.

7. Not using an Oxford (or serial) comma

(Mostly) Incorrect: She got cookies, soda and movies for her party.
Correct: She got cookies, soda, and movies for her party.

The serial comma is a matter of debate. Many American style guides don’t require it: Some even forbid it entirely. But we at OWJ are fans of the Oxford comma. Before the “and” in a list, insert a comma. However, in your own personal work, it’s only important to remain consistent.

Thanks for reading! Read our older Comma Chameleon post or our Comma Commandments post to learn more about how commas should be used.

Posted in Writing Tips

How to Do Quick Research

Typing away

When you’re asked to write about a subject on which you’re not an expert, now is not the time to “fake it ’til you make it.”
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Many of us have expertise in something, but sometimes, we have to write about things we know nothing or very little about. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do fast research for short educational articles when you don’t have much knowledge on the topic: Read more ›

Posted in Writing Tips

Common Punctuation Flubs Editors Do NOT Love

Writing love

You won’t win any hearts when you misuse punctuation!
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Punctuation tends to be an afterthought, not the focus, for most writers. That being said, mistakes are common. Be careful of the following seven common punctuation flubs: Read more ›

Posted in Writing Tips

Music to Write By: 7 Singable Syntax Songs

Some freelance writers find that they work a lot more efficiently in a quiet room, but others are more productive when they’re listening to music while they work on freelance writing jobs from home. But what if you’re tired of the same old playlist? Here are some fun songs to listen to while you write — and they might even make you a better writer. Read more ›

Posted in Fun Stuff

7 Tips for Better Proofreading: Catch More Mistakes


Catch your mistakes before your editor does with these proofreading tips!
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While nobody’s perfect, many of us can take more steps to find our mistakes. One of the most important ingredients in this recipe for success is time. Proofreading takes time; the process shouldn’t be rushed, or else errors will almost always be present. One quick re-read isn’t quite enough. Here are some proofreading tips for catching more mistakes. Read more ›

Posted in Writing Tips

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