Punctuation in Academic Writing: Commas

Punctuation marks play an essential role in writing since they are used to separate elements to understand the meaning of a text. Punctuation marks include full stops, commas, question marks, among others. In this article, we will focus on commas, which is probably one of the most underrated symbols yet crucial at the moment of writing. The misuse of commas can lead to a complete change of meaning in your text. This article aims to review the importance and the main rules for correct comma usage.

What is a Comma?

Commas are punctuation marks that divide connected elements sharing the same idea. In this case, commas can be considered as the “lighter” version of periods. Although they are a “lighter” version, they are still essential for what you want to express in your writing. Consider these following sentences: 

  •  Let’s eat grandma.
  • I love cooking my dog and family.

What is the problem with these sentences? Unless you do not want to eat your grandmother, or you do not want to cook your dog and your family, you are missing a crucial punctuation mark: commas.

Although these mistaken sentences can seem funny when it comes to academic writing, there is no place for making this type of mistake; otherwise, the meaning of your text can be severely affected. Below, there is a list of the most common and essential functions of comma usage. 

Separating Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are sentences that can work independently. This means that they possess a subject as well as a predicate, which conveys a complete, single and clear idea. In some sentences, for instance, we can find two independent clauses. These independent clauses can work by using conjunctions, such as and, but, so, nor, yet, among others. Therefore, commas can separate independent clauses in a single sentence. 

  1. The students handed in the research project a week ago, but the teacher hasn’t checked all the projects yet. 
  2. I cooked dinner on Monday and Tuesday, and my mom made dinner on Wednesday.

Separating Dependent Clauses

In this case, dependent clauses cannot work independently. They need to be accompanied by other independent clauses in the same sentences. Dependent clauses begin with words such as while, as, since, until, although, etc. 

  1. Although she tried to get good marks by studying hard, she couldn’t even get an A. 
  2. While the deer was eating, the lion was watching it. 

Separating Parenthetical Elements

A parenthetical element is a word or group of words that provide non-important information to a sentence. Parenthetical Elements interrupt the flow of the sentence and include extra information, but it will not change the central meaning nor the structure of the sentence if they are left out. 

  1. The student, who was exhausted, could finally pass the test. 
  2. Next Monday, says the news, it’s going to be the hottest day of the year.

Separating Elements on a List

When writing a list in a sentence that contains more than two elements, they need to be separated with commas. It is important to mention that conjunctions such as and should accompany the last item of the list. 

  1. Yesterday I studied English, Maths, Biology, and Physics. 
  2. My mother loves ice cream, chocolate, and cake. 

Introducing Quotations

Comma usage is needed for introducing quotations. Remember that quotations portray the explicit words of the speaker (direct speech). If we include direct quotations, then it is essential to use commas after introductory words, such as explains, says, declares, mentions, etc. 

  1. As Freddie Mercury said, “The show must go on.” 
  2. The author mentions, “The country is living a current state of economic uncertainty.”

Vocative Case

The vocative comma is used when the speaker is addressing someone. Therefore, the name should be separated from the rest of the sentence. 

  1. Let’s eat, grandma.
  2. Paul, I want to know your opinion.

Dates, Geographical Names, and Titles

  • To separate the date with the year.

         October 18, 2019, was a crucial moment for the history of Chile.

  • To separate the geographical name of cities with names.

           Santiago, Chile, is the most populated city in Chile.

  • To separate names with titles (e.g., academic degrees).

             Peter B. Johnson, Ph.D., will join us at the conference.

Comma Misuse

Comma misuse can lead to confusion and misunderstanding of the sentence. Always be careful with how you use commas. This is a list of the most common mistakes that you must avoid when writing a text: 

  • Do not separate the subject from the verb with commas.
  1. Most people, believe that the current crisis is not going to improve. [incorrect]
  2. A popular football player, was arrested last night. [incorrect] 
  • Do not use commas for separating the main clause with its dependent clause.
  1. Maria cried all night, because she lost her best friend. [incorrect]
  2. The students were studying, while the teacher was on her phone. [incorrect] 

The only option for using this function is to have an extreme contrast between the two   ideas, such as: 

They were still feeling very disappointed, even though they had been selected for the project. [correct] 

  • Using a comma before defining relative clauses.
  1. The girl, that lives next door is a doctor. [incorrect]
  2. The books, that you lent me were excellent. [incorrect] 
  3. I wrote to my mother, who lives in Chile. [incorrect] 

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