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Where Do I Use Commas?

Are you a comma-kaze? Do you use commas like confetti? Don’t use a comma everywhere you would pause when speaking. Check out the rules.

By
Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #356

Pauses Do Not Equal Commas

The “put a comma everywhere you’d pause” idea is an unfortunately common myth. You do typically pause when you’re reading a sentence out loud and you come across a comma, but that doesn’t mean that every time you’d pause when you’re speaking, your sentence needs a comma.

The Garmin ad is a perfect example. If I were a radio or TV announcer reading their ad, I’d definitely pause for dramatic effect where they have the comma, but that doesn’t mean you put a comma in the sentence.

People who put commas everywhere they’d pause tend to overuse commas, or as a teacher once said to my step-mother, use commas like confetti. Another person on Twitter named Jon said that he overused commas and his teacher called him a comma-kaze.

I’m not sure where the idea of a pause equaling a comma came from, but don’t believe it. Don’t be a comma-kaze.

An interesting side note is that just like every other part of language, punctuation norms have changed over time too. When I look at old grammar books from the 1800s, one thing that jumps out at me is how many commas writers used back then. (Note the abundance of commas in the prose in this famous 1838 grammar book by Robert Lowth).

Some Appositives Need Commas

What if the Garmin ad originally did have the comma and didn’t have the verb “is”? If it said “Today’s record, tomorrow’s motivation,” why is it right to have a comma?

We’d put a comma between “today’s record” and “tomorrow’s motivation” because “tomorrow’s motivation” is acting like an appositive.

Let’s consider a simpler example to start. Appositives name or rename the noun they follow. If I write, “The car, a Lamborghini, sped away,” “a Lamborghini” is an appositive. It names “the car,” the noun that came right before it.

If the ad said “Today’s record, tomorrow’s motivation,” “tomorrow’s motivation” is an appositive because it’s claiming that today’s record and tomorrow’s motivation are the same thing, just like “the car” and “a Lamborghini” are the same thing.

Appositives can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. When they’re doing this kind of direct renaming, they’re nonrestrictive and take a comma.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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