The Comma: A Punctuation Conundrum

Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Blog | 3 comments

The Comma: A Punctuation Conundrum

Barbara McNichol is one of those editors to contact when you’re struggling with punctuation and grammar. In her guest blog below, she gives some pointers on that all-important, oft-misused swish – the comma. For those of you in the Tucson area, Barbara will be conducting the  How to Strengthen EVERYTHING You Write “wordshop” on Friday, January 25 from 8 am-11:45 am. If you want to refine your writing skills, you’ll want to sign up for this event.

It’s Okay to Take Artistic License with Commas but Watch Out!

by Barbara McNichol

When I’m editing manuscripts, I sometimes wonder how much the authors struggle with their use of commas and dashes and
other punctuation—or whether they question it at all!

At times, strict punctuation rules can be relaxed, especially when writing artistic pieces. Even in the absence of rhyme or
 reason where commas are placed, however, consistency must reign.

Unconventional punctuation can create confusion in meaning. If authors don’t struggle a bit with when to use commas, they
may be forcing readers to struggle with “getting” what they mean. That’s when relying on the rules takes priority over artistic

A fascinating article from a New York Times columnist adroitly addresses the correct use of a comma.

I encourage you to read this article and learn from a master, Ben Yagoda. I’m impressed with how well Yagoda’s examples explain the tricky
 rules for using commas. For example:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None are correct — unless
“Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:

I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another
 correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

Do you see how the correct punctuation set up clarity in the meaning? Subtle but important distinctions.

How important is it for you to follow strict punctuation rules in your writing? Please share your comments here.

Barbara McNichol Editorial provides expert editing of articles, books, and book proposals for authors, speakers, and entrepreneurs. Over the past 19 years, she has placed more than 250 books on her editing “trophy shelf.” Barbara helps solopreneurs improve their writing through her monthly ezine Add Power to Your Pen. She has also created Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When It Really Matters and also publishes the monthly ezine Add Power to Your Pen. Please visit



  1. I make a point of explaining that once a writer understands the effect punctuation has on the reader, he or she no longer needs rules at all. The comma creates the shortest pause in written communication. It should be used where the writer wants the reader to pause for a very brief time. The comma pause is about 1/2 the medium length of the pause created by the semicolon, and about 1/4 the long pause created by end punctuation, the period, exclamation point, question mark and colon.

  2. In uploading this article, Barbara’s six run-together words must be a result of computer error, and not an editing oversight.I would love to be in the Tucson area to attend her workshop.

  3. That pesky comma. Great article. Always helpful to learn something that will improve my writing.

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