Take the 2-minute tour ×
Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I find myself often in writing using too many commas, but then going through and editing many of them back out again or restructuring to use full-stops.

Is there a rule of thumb I've forgotten from my school days (English language was never pushed very hard beyond first-school) that would help me decide when a comma is appropriate?

Many thanks in advance.

share|improve this question
4  
This question is a tangle. Can you give an example of something you've overwrought with commas so we can offer some concrete feedback. –  tylerharms Dec 31 '12 at 1:25
2  
Anything Joyce can do, you can do lesser... ♬ –  Aerovistae Jan 5 '13 at 18:45
1  
Is there ever an inappropriate time to mention Strunk and White? –  Zayne S Halsall Jan 29 '13 at 19:42
add comment

4 Answers 4

How many commas is too many?

When they're incorrectly used. There are four principal uses for a comma –

As a listing comma in replace of words such as and, or etc.

As a joining comma in joining two sentences together with and, or etc.

As a gapping comma to show that words have been removed instead of repeated.

As a bracketing (or isolating) comma to mark off a weak interruption of the sentence so the sentence flows more smoothly.

It's worth taking time to understand how these four main comma uses are used and in doing so it will help you remove all the unnecessary or incorrectly used ones.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for the term "gapping comma." I didn't know that had a specific name. I love this place. :D –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 1 '13 at 3:48
1  
This is an excellent list, but I would still make the argument that commas could be used correctly in the grammatical sense, but still be overused (which is what I believe is being asked here). Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. –  Joel Shea Jan 2 '13 at 15:02
    
@JoelShea If the OP is using them correctly, yet still feels there's too many then he needs to look at another aspect of his writing. The OP has not made it clear why he has too many commas, without that information any answer can only be speculative as to why he has too many of them! –  spiceyokooko Jan 2 '13 at 15:14
add comment

I like to say that much of the time when people use a comma, they really just want to use a period but don't know it. Elmore Leonard says that an exclamation point should not be used more than once per hundred thousand characters; I feel a similar rule should exist for commas. But, of course, Elmore Leonard doesn't make the rules and neither do I (fortunately). And I've already used three commas in this paragraph. What gives?

I'm going to make a big assumption here that you are using commas where they legitimately belong (http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp). I going to make the even bigger assumption that you are in fact using commas to elongate your sentences, to make them complicated, to have them drag out well past their usefulness, and that you want them to stop, but you aren't sure how to do it...

Many people feel that complex sentences somehow infuse their writing more edge or depth. That long, lusterous sentences make your writing seem smarter. But commas are just a tool. They can only do what they are told, whether for the better or worse of a sentence.

If you feel you have too many commas, you do. In places that are appropriate, make them separate sentences. The worse that can happen is that you cut it back too far, you can see that you have cut it back too far, and you put some of the commas back.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I don't think there's any simple metric. Like, no one can say you should have twenty-seven commas per page or anything like that.

The first question would be, Do you have commas in inappropriate places? If you have sentences like, "Bob walked, to, the store, slowly" then yes, there are too many commas. But a sentence that contains a list could legitimately have many commas. Like, "He found a bottle, three coins, two keys, a small metal box, a pack of matches, some scraps of paper, and a patridge in a pear tree."

The real problem is not the number of commas per se, but whether they are being used properly. If they are, then I wouldn't even think about it.

If you think you have too many commas, and they are all used appropriately, it may be that your problem is that your sentences are too complex. If you have too many clauses in each sentence that can indirectly result in too many commas.

As Tylerhams said in a comment, perhaps if you gave a couple of sample sentences folks here could give a more specific reply.

share|improve this answer
add comment

If you're using commas where they shouldn't be, they should obviously be removed.

One less common example of the misuse of a comma that might happen is comma splicing - using commas to join two independent clauses and create a run-on sentence. It happens like this, sometimes you miss it because it looks like an subordinate clause.

However, sometimes all the commas do belong where they are and yet it still feels like too much. Usually it's a case of this:

I think that situations such as this one, where there are lots of nested parenthetical, but still grammatically discernible, phrases, are the issue, as far as I know, where most people have the most trouble with the use of commas, because, because of all that nesting, they tend to take a lot more mental accounting to parse. Usually, in cases like that, in order to avoid comma overuse, the solution is to reword the sentence to make the phrase more direct and decipherable.

As far as I know, the issue where people have the most trouble with the use of commas is in situations such as the above where there are lots of nested parenthetical phrases that are still grammatically discernible but take a lot more mental accounting to parse because of all that nesting. Usually the solution in cases like that is to reword the sentence to reduce comma usage and make the phrase more direct and decipherable.

In other words, if you have too many commas, usually it's not the commas themselves that are the problem. Look at your sentence structure and see if you're taking yourself for loops while reading it.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.