As a scorer for Essentials in Writing’s homeschool writing curricula, I frequently see just how much trouble commas can cause for students, and as a member of Curriculum Development for Essentials in Writing, I’m often reminded just how many ways commas can be used, so it’s no wonder that students are often confused! When I am scoring, most of the grammatical errors I see in students’ papers include commas or the lack of them, even more so than bigger sentence errors like fragments and run-on sentences. Fixing these comma errors doesn’t take much time, but knowing exactly how to fix the errors can be trickier.
Why do commas cause so many problems for students when writing?
One reason, as previously mentioned, is that commas are used for more than one purpose. We don’t see students struggling with question marks because question marks note the end of a question and do nothing more. Commas, however, serve multiple purposes and therefore require more effort and thought.
Another reason students struggle with commas is that students tend to use commas as pauses. We encourage students to read their writing out loud in order to give them an idea of what their compositions sound like and if any changes need to be made. Reading what one has written out loud, however, can cause students to doubt their punctuation and begin using commas where they seem necessary but actually aren’t.
The final reason that commas are often used incorrectly is that students often don’t care where commas belong. This reason is hardly flattering but is nonetheless true. Students who have realized the many purposes of a comma but cannot remember all of them while writing may find themselves throwing in commas wherever they seem necessary just so they can move on. Don’t think too harshly of these students, however. Haphazard commas are generally the result of frustration caused by confusion rather than pure apathy.
How, then, can homeschool writers understand and use commas effectively?
Unless your homeschooler wants to sit down and memorize all punctuation rules regarding commas, which seems unlikely, the best way to use commas effectively is to consistently use them correctly. In order to use them correctly, here’s a handy guide of when to use—and when not to use—the cantankerous comma.
Place commas before…
- Conjunctions that separate independent clauses. Doing so helps separate the distinct clauses.
Correct: “I wrote a sentence, and I punctuated it correctly.”
Incorrect: “I wrote a sentence and I punctuated it correctly.”
- Participial phrases that follow independent clauses. A participle is a verbal (a word derived from a verb) that ends in -ing and is used as an adjective. When a participle begins a phrase that adds more information about a word in the independent clause, that phrase is a participial phrase.
Correct: “I know the importance of commas, having used them often in my writing.”
Incorrect: “I know the importance of commas having used them often in my writing.”
Place commas after…
- Introductory words, phrases, and clauses that precede independent clauses. Placing a comma after introductory material helps the reader know when the main clause begins.
Correct: “After I read about commas, I felt more confident when writing.”
Incorrect: “After I read about commas I felt more confident when writing.”
Do not place commas before…
- Dependent clauses or prepositional phrases that follow independent clauses. Wanting to place a comma before a long clause or phrase is natural since we would pause if saying the sentence aloud, but dependent clauses and prepositional phrases can simply follow an independent clause with no comma.
Correct: “My writing was clear because I used commas correctly.”
Incorrect: “My writing was clear, because I used commas correctly.”
Correct: “I felt good about commas for the first time.”
Incorrect: “I felt good about commas, for the first time.”
- Conjunctions that separate two words or phrases instead of two independent clauses. A comma works with a conjunction to separate independent clauses, so it’s easy to assume that commas will always accompany conjunctions. If, however, a conjunction is separating two things that are not independent clauses, the comma is not necessary.
Correct: “I wrote a sentence and used no commas.”
Incorrect: “I wrote a sentence, and used no commas.”
- The main verb in a sentence. This error goes back to feeling a need to pause, but commas are not necessary before a sentence’s main verb.
Correct: “This sentence has no commas whatsoever.”
Incorrect: “This sentence, has no commas whatsoever.
This list is not meant to intimidate students or overwhelm them but rather to provide them with a concise point of reference for commas as they write. As always, practice makes perfect, and continually using commas correctly will make the process easier in time. Homeschool students, conquer the comma—we believe in you!
Essentials in Writing