Ah, the comma. There is, perhaps, no other piece of punctuation so widely misused. We get it — the comma is a seductive mistress. As an editor, I inevitably see writers get swept away by the charming comma far too often. A common side effect of the comma craze is to sprinkle them around like they’re confetti. Perhaps you, too, are bothered by unnecessary commas. Maybe you’re a concerned writer who fears you commit random acts of comma. Worry not, dear reader, for I have the solution. I present to you…
Do NOT use a comma:
…to separate a list of only two items
For a comma to be deemed useful in a list, the list must contain a minimum of three items.
Incorrect: I bought cheese, and milk.
Correct: I bought cheese and milk.
…between a subject and its verb
Incorrect: Proper punctuation, is a skill that can be learned with time and patience.
Correct: Proper punctuation is a skill that can be learned with time and patience.
…in a complex sentence where an independent clause is followed by a dependent clause (as long as the dependent clause does not express contrast)
Incorrect: I need to go grocery shopping, because there is no more food in the house.
Correct: I need to go grocery shopping because there is no more food in the house.
…before the first item in a series
Incorrect: Qualities of a good writing include, clarity, organization, and flow.
Correct: Qualities of good writing include clarity, organization, and flow.
…after the last item in a series
Incorrect: Please put away your notes, textbook, and class materials, prior to opening your text booklet.
Correct: Please put away your notes, textbook, and class materials prior to opening your text booklet.
…to set off restrictive elements
Incorrect: No persons, under the age of 18, may attend the concert without a guardian present.
Correct: No persons under the age of 18 may attend the concert without a guardian present.
…between cumulative adjectives
Incorrect: The manatee is a gray, aquatic mammal.
Correct: The manatee is a gray aquatic mammal.
Incorrect: He owns two, large dogs.
Correct: He owns two large dogs.
…before an indirect quotation
Incorrect: My teacher told me, that I must proofread my work.
Correct: My teacher told me that I must proofread my work.
…after a question mark or exclamation point
Incorrect: “What are you doing?,” she asked.
Correct: “What are you doing?” she asked.
There are many resources available that explore, in depth, the myriad uses of the comma, but fewer that focus specifically on when NOT to use one. If you find yourself scratching your head and asking, “Is a comma really necessary here?” reference the aforementioned commandments and clear any lingering doubt.