The comma - a fundamental punctuation mark

Why an Editor will Tell you that Punctuation is Important 

Many, many people out there do not know the difference between  a colon, semi-colon and a comma. In fact they don’t know how to use any form of punctuation correctly – they leave this for the editors… In this blog post I am going to show you why the correct usage of punctuation is so important.


Punctuation lesson #1: The comma


When I first started out in publishing as a sub-editor my manager – the chief sub-editor – called me a ‘comma queen’. At first I took offence to this but after he explained why he had called me this I started to understand more.


We have always been told that when we want our readers to pause in a sentence we – as the author – need to insert a comma. Thus we tend to insert more commas than are necessary in our work. As such sometimes we ens up breaking apart units of meaning in our sentences so distorting thr meaning.


Take parenthesis.


Information in parenthesis – which is enclosed by a set of em dashes  (more about the difference between the en dash and the em dash later), commas or brackets – is additional to the meaning of the sentence. Thus if you were to remove the information in parenthesis the sentence would still make sense although the meaning may be altered.  For example:


  1. She baked chocolate chip cookies – as I had hoped – for the party.

  2. She baked chocolate chip cookies for the party.


Sentence one expresses the subjective opinion of the speaker that he had hoped she would bake chocolate chip cookies. Sentence two – with the information in parenthesis removed – still makes sense although the meaning is altered. No opinion of a second person is expressed.


However if you put commas around units of the sentence that are not separate units of meaning on their own the meaning is distorted as if you take these parts out of the sentence it won’t make sense:


  • She baked, chocolate chip cookies, as I had hoped for the party.


“She baked” does make sense on its own as a sentence but chocolate chip cookies does not. Similarly if you take out chocolate chip cookies the remaing sentence as a whole doesn not make sense.


So when it comes to the comma remember not to sprinkle them around your sentences like confetti and make sure that you always insert them in valid positions.