The comma is the simplest of punctuation elements, and remains the most versatile that writers can use.
Just mention the word ‘grammar’ to a workshop participant and I’ll get grimaces and mutterings of, ‘Dunno much about grammar,’ and some awkward throat clearing.
In fact, most of us use perfectly correct grammar in our spoken English, so we do know something about the subject.
Improving your grammar doesn’t mean slogging through a grammar book from cover to cover. You can simply read up on one element at a time. (Choose a style guide rather than a grammar book, as it’s more relevant to the workplace). A good place to start your grammar boost is the humble comma.
The comma is used in different kinds of lists, and to separate different clauses. Its function is simply to ensure a message is unambiguous and clear.
Here’s an overview of the main ways commas can boost clarity in your writing.
1. Introductory and transitional expressions
Use a comma after introductory terms such as ‘last year’ or ‘next time’, as well as linking terms such as ‘however’ and ‘furthermore’, which create a transition with a previous sentence.
In December 2012, Acme Corporation will release its final report.
However, there is another aspect of the problem.
2. Run-on lists
Use commas to separate items in a list. A comma goes between the last and second-last item when there is a risk of ambiguity. For example:
The package will help businesses design, deliver and maintain a high service standard.
Her job was to liaise with clients, oversee the production team, and compile and issue corporate communications.
3. Strings of adjectives
There are three kinds of adjectives – evaluative, descriptive and definitive, usually written in this order. You use commas only to separate adjectives of the same kind. For example:
A rare vintage convertible car (evaluative + descriptive + definitive)
A valuable, niche, self-contained sector of the industry (evaluative + evaluative + evaluative)
4. Coordinate clauses
Use commas between clauses that are linked by ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘yet’. (There’s no need for a comma when the clauses are short). For example:
This report explains the reasoning behind Acme Co’s national IT upgrade, and recommends steps to ensure its success.
We will seek the government’s endorsement and publish the report. (short clauses – no comma necessary)