Commas are those tricky little things which we use to show a gap or pause between parts of a sentence. Recently a student of mine saw that I’d crossed out quite a few of her commas, which begged the question: when to use them?
Micheal Swan in his book Practical English Usage has already written a nice summary which answers this very question. So I’ll simply highlight a few areas where I’ve noticed Czech and Slovak learners having particular problems:
- A few examples of when commas are NOT used in English (as opposed to Czech)
Myslím, že… -> I think that he’s tired.
Doufám, že… > I hope that Carla Bruni comes to the party.
Cítim, že.. -> I feel that he’s not listening to us.
These ‘expressive’ verbs and reporting verbs followed by that do not use a comma. So therefore these sentences won’t take a comma either:
I recommend that we should visit the castle.
I suggest that we head to the conference around 4pm.
Everyone realised that she was addicted.
She showed me the way to my seat.
It’s important that we all stay calm.
It’s essential that Obama is re-elected so we can be $20 trillion in debt.
It’s absolutely vital that we spend less money.
As these are common verbs and constructions, simply checking your writing before you press ‘send’ or put it in the post will prevent many of your common ‘comma mistakes’
- In relative clauses
Note the differences here:
1. The man standing by the pool was painting a beautiful picture.
2. Melbourne, which has a population of 4 million, is Australia’s friendliest city.
In the first sentence we know exactly know we’re talking about. The phrase ‘standing by the pool’ tells us it’s the man, it identifies him. ie this kind of sentence is called an ‘identifying clause.’
In the second example, the clause in the middle simply tells us extra information about Melbourne. It’s not identifying.
1. Prague’s a place (that) I’ve always wanted to go to.
2. Steve Jobs helped launch the iPad, which sold millions worldwide.
Commas in use
If you check what your English friends are doing on Twitter and Facebook, you’ll see that most people don’t care about commas for everyday ‘fast’ communication.
These days lots of publications are deciding not to include some commas (where historically we’d include them) because it ‘flows better.’
I believe there are two other reasons for not using commas as much:
1. native speakers know where the ‘chunk’ of language (the phrase or words that go together) starts and ends, and so they pause in their minds as they read. For example, sometimes you’ll see commas not being used after these words:
on the other hand
believe it or not
This is because we can already see that these words are separate from the next part of the sentence.
2. For some newspaper editors and bloggers, their articles look better without commas, and there’s less ‘clutter’ in the sentence. They may even save money on ink or printing costs!
So I say when in doubt, leave them out!
When you really should care about commas
It matters in situations where you want to communicate in a professional or academic context.
I particular recommend you write according to what is generally considered correct in the language when you are taking an exam in English (eg IELTS or FCE, CAE, CPE).
If you’re a learner of English and want to look at this more in detail, then following the basic rules in Michael Swan’s book will be more than enough!
david [at] GetIntoEnglish [dot] com