Commas

A horse and tortoise appearing under some text as part of two road signs to represent the correct use of commas.

Commas signal to your reader to pause very slightly while reading. This can help make the individual parts of a sentence clearer in meaning. It also shows how sentences are split up, and separates words in a list.

For example:

  • The kitten was cute, fluffy and cuddly.
  • To make a perfect cup of tea, you need a teabag, sugar, milk and hot water.
  • Jones, the baker, is now also the candlestick maker.
  • Sam Haskins, who broke his leg in that car accident, still managed to pass all his exams.

Sentence separation and comma splicing

A common mistake in writing is to place a comma where in fact a full stop is needed. This creates an over-long sentence. This misuse of the comma creates what is called a 'comma splice'. Aim to avoid comma splices in your writing.

When you proofread your work, highlight each comma and decide whether it is needed, or whether a full-stop would be more effective.

Look at the example below:

The room filled with smoke, I froze in panic.

This is an example of comma splice. The comma in the middle should not be there because each half is a complete sentence in its own right.

So in fact you should use two full sentences, each ending with a full stop. This makes for two shorter but much livelier, sentences:

The room filled with smoke. I froze in panic.

Alternatively - you could use a conjunction (joining word) to connect the two sentences:

The room filled with smoke and I froze in panic.

OR – when the two sentences are closely linked in some way, you could use a semi-colon:

The room filled with smoke; I froze in panic.

Question

Identify the comma splices in the following piece of writing. As you find each comma think about what would happen if it were replaced with a full stop. Remember that the two sentences each side of a full stop must be meaningful and complete.

I was nervous, making my way through the crowd in the darkness. Lights glistened in time to the music, I blinked at the brightness. Fetching a drink from the corner, I looked at the food on offer. It was a pretty good spread, Hollie had really made an effort. It was just a shame that her mum had made a massive princess cake. The thing was wonky, but the creepy smile on its face was the worst part.

Lights glistened in time to the music, I blinked at the brightness.

It was a pretty good spread, Hollie had really made an effort.

These are both examples of comma splicing. A full stop, semi-colon or conjunction is needed for the sentences to be grammatically correct.