Posted On February 13, 2017 by Print This Post

Editor Nan on Comma Usage


Let’s Talk Commas

When it comes to comma usage, how many of us reach back into our memories to ninth-grade English class? What was it that your teacher told you about when to use a comma and when not to use a comma? You may read these rules aloud in a sing-song tone—Miss Foster would be proud.

  • Two independent clauses joined by a conjunction need a comma before the conjunction.
  • Introductory dependent clauses are set off by commas.
  • A dependent clause that presents added information not needed to keep the meaning of the sentence intact is set off by commas. A dependent clause that comes in the middle or the end of a sentence and is necessary to the meaning is not set off by commas.
  • An appositive is a group of words that follow a noun and identifies it or gives more info. Appositives are set off by commas. If the appositive is so closely related to the noun that it modifies the meaning of the word, then you don’t need commas.
  • Yada, yada, yada . . .

Well, those rules and a couple of others still apply, and writers who correctly use commas will have the eternal gratitude of their copy editors. But rather than suggest you memorize a set of rules, I’m going to give you some common-sense examples that might make the rules a little easier to apply.

Please know that most publishing houses have style guides where they address comma usage, and if you’re writing for a specific house, you’ll need to follow their rules, even if they disagree with the ones I’m sharing here. A great example of this is the dreaded Oxford, or serial, comma. In my world, Oxford commas are always, always correct, but some houses eschew them as extraneous punctuation. Go figure. Here, editor Nan is telling you to use a serial comma when you have a list of three or more items or actions; i.e., He turned, smiled, and kissed her. Or He resisted the urge to salute her red, white, and blue dress.

Use commas when you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. So, She made the bed, and he took a shower. Two complete thoughts, two subjects, two verbs. Easy, right? Yeah, but sometimes house style is to leave out that comma if the sentences are this simple because again, the old, extraneous punctuation thing. So, a slightly more complex example might be They lingered over dinner last night, and she woke up very tired the next morning. All in all, use the comma between two independent clauses—it’s just good policy.

Use a comma after an introductory clause or a long prepositional phrase: Although Mike was exhausted, he kept running. Or While Sarah was on vacation, she broke her ankle. Or In the heat of the moment, he let the secret slip. Just do it . . . for me, okay?

Dependent versus independent clauses? This one’s a little tougher, but here’s the skinny. Dependent clauses can’t stand alone, while independent clauses can. That’s it. Example, Because the pool was deep, I put water wings on my grandson. Dependent clause = Because the pool was deep—can’t stand alone. Independent clause = I put water wings on my grandson—subject + verb+ object means a complete sentence. This one has all the right elements to stand alone. There you go.

And then there’s the whole restrictive (no comma) versus nonrestrictive (use the comma) appositive thing—don’t let that scare you, here’s an example of each: Nonrestrictive: My husband, Fred, is losing weight. I only have one husband (polygamy notwithstanding), so Fred gets commas around his name because it’s not really necessary information. Restrictive: My sister Kate is going to Bermuda. I have more than one sister, so Kate is essential information if you’re going to know which sister is headed to Bermuda, thus no commas.

Remember to use commas with geographical locations in narrative: She moved to Beckley, West Virginia, for her new job. And use a comma to separate the month and year in a date: He was born on September 26, 1977.

Use a comma in dialogue before a “said” type of dialogue tag: “I’m feeling pretty chipper today,” Tony said with a broad wink. Do not use a comma in dialogue if you’re using action as your dialogue tag: “I’m feeling pretty chipper today.” Tony gave her a broad wink. FYI, husked, snorted, giggled, laughed, frowned, etc. are not “said” types of dialogue tags, but replied, answered, asked, called, whispered, murmured, etc. are. If you can actually do it with a word, it qualifies.

And that, my dear writers, is our easy-peasy comma lesson for today. Use these rules and examples, and commas should longer intimidate. A quick rule of thumb? Read the sentence aloud—if you feel a natural pause in the reading, that might be a good place for a comma.




Bio: Nan Reinhardt has been a copyeditor and proofreader for over 25 years, and currently works on romantic fiction titles for a variety of clients, including Avon Books, St. Martin’s Press, Kensington Books, Tule Publishing, and Entangled Publishing, as well as for many indie authors.

Nan is also writer of romantic fiction for women in their prime. Yeah, women still fall in love and have sex, even after 45! Imagine! She is a wife, a mom, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother. She’s been an antiques dealer, a bank teller, a stay-at-home mom, a secretary, and for the last 20 years, she’s earned her living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader.

But writing is Nan’s first and most enduring passion. She can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t writing—she wrote her first romance novel at the age of ten, a love story between the most sophisticated person she knew at the time, her older sister (who was in high school and had a driver’s license!), and a member of Herman’s Hermits. If you remember who they are, you are Nan’s audience! She’s still writing romance, but now from the viewpoint of a wiser, slightly rumpled, menopausal woman who believes that love never ages, women only grow more interesting, and everybody needs a little sexy romance.

Visit Nan’s website at, where you’ll find links to all her books as well as blogs about writing, being a Baby Boomer, and aging gracefully…mostly. Nan also blogs every Tuesday at Word Wranglers, sharing the spotlight with four other romance authors.


Twitter: @NanReinhardt

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12 Responses to “Editor Nan on Comma Usage”

  1. This is all good advice, although the “natural pause” is not always reliable. Years ago, the owner of the company I was working for complained about all the commas the word processor (that many years ago!) removed while working on his document. He protested that he was taught to insert a comma everywhere he would pause for breath. She snapped back, “You must have been panting when you wrote this!”

    Posted by Laurel Busch | February 13, 2017, 10:30 am
  2. Hey Nan…I’ve always done the “natural pause” when I’m not sure about a comma. I’ll say the sentence out loud with and without a pause and then pop one in there. BUT, I’m afraid I’ve always been taught not to use the Oxford comma. =) Don’t hit me! lol….we were taught that way in school, but I’ll try harder to use it now!

    Thanks for a great post Nan!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | February 13, 2017, 6:05 pm
    • Hi, Carrie! Commas are a tough call sometimes, but the natural pause works now and again. It’s not foolproof though, especially, as Laurel points out, if you’ve been running before you write! 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by Nan | February 14, 2017, 6:31 am
  3. I always wrote with the Oxford comma until I started writing as a freelancer for a number of garden/landscape magazines. My editors believed less is more when it came to commas, and when it came to colons and semi-colons, they believed there was no place for them at all. I think it’s easier when you’re writing for one or two publications because it’s simple enough to figure out what usage they prefer. These days, if it sounds right to me, I instantly distrust my instincts. I’m trying to learn all these new tricks, but it doesn’t come easy.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 13, 2017, 11:40 pm
  4. Oh, Becke, don’t doubt your instincts, but, yes, house styles must be followed. There is a romance pub that doesn’t the Oxford comma and it pains me to read them…ack!! Colons and semicolons are a perfectly acceptable punctuation and should not be dissed. Maybe we need to talk about those, too…hmmmm… 😉

    Posted by Nan | February 14, 2017, 6:33 am
  5. We received this comment via e-mail this morning:

    Hi, Nan. Us boomer Rinehart’s have to stick together, but…

    Serial commas? Come on! Is Oxford still trying to sell us useless commas?

    What about my friend Charley’s novel? If you slap him with an unabridged Oxford he won’t even be able to get off the ground. Please! I kind of like the way he started: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…” And I’m still proud of the publisher for siding with the author, not the copy editor.

    Martin Rinehart

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 14, 2017, 12:44 pm
  6. I had an editor from hell who used the “take a breath” approach so she’d inserted random commas all through my work. I did some some math after counting the wrong commas on twenty pages and figured out she’d added hundreds of unneeded commas through the work. I played my “I’m a frinking English teacher with two degrees” card, and she backed down.

    And don’t forget the vocative comma. It’s the biggest comma error I see in most self-published works. Apparently, many so-called copy editors don’t even know the rule.

    Posted by Marilynn Byerly | February 14, 2017, 4:03 pm
  7. Thanks Nan!

    Posted by Luke | March 10, 2017, 5:43 am


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