Margaret French's Handy-Dandy Simplified Comma Rules

Disclaimer:  These rules are neither complete nor precise.  They are, however, useful and easy to remember.

They're not quite as simple as a-b-c, but they are as simple as a-a-b-b-c.

Rule #1: "A" is for "after." 
Put a comma after an introductory group of words.

Rule #2.  "A" is for "around."
Put a comma around interrupters.  

Rule #3: "B" is for "before."
Put a comma before "and," "but," "or," "for," "nor," "so," or "yet" when it connects two sentences.

Rule #4: "B" is for "between."
Put a comma between elements in a list.

Rule #5: "C" is for "clarity."


Rule #1: "A" is for "after."

Put a comma after an introductory group of words.

  • Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing.

     

  • In the afternoons, they hung out in the no name bar in Sausalito.

     

  • Reading my father’s article, I could only imagine that the world was breaking down.

     

  • Every morning, no matter how late he’d been up, my father rose at 5:30.

     

  • Reading my father’s article, I could only imagine that the world was breaking down.

     

  • So in addition to writing furtively at the office, I wrote every night for an hour or more.

     

  • If people show up in one of my classes and want to learn to write, I can tell them everything that has helped me along the way.

     

  • Other than writing, I am completely unemployable.

     

  • When they are working on their books or stories, their heads will spin with ideas or inventions.

     

  • But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.

     

  • But I also tell them that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. [This one is tricky! Notice that the words “when my writer friends are working” introduces the clause “they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.”]

     

Notes:

  • The introductory group of words may be either a phrase or a subordinate clause.

  • The comma is optional if the introductory group of words is four or fewer words.

  • Writers often omit this comma when the meaning is clear.  But it is never wrong to put it in.

  • The sample sentences are from Bird to Bird. See the list of Recommended Readings.


Rule #2.  "A" is for "around."

Put a comma around interrupters.  

  • I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks.
  • He did end up dying rather early, in his mid-fifties, but at least he had lived on his own terms.
  • This, as you might imagine, did not help my self-esteem.
  • H was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet.
  • We wanted to get deep. (Also, I suppose, we wanted to get laid.)
  • I learned how to be like a ship’s rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.
  • My father, who was too sick to write his own rendition, loved them.
  • I believed, before I wrote my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying.
  • I always mention a scene from Chariots of Fire in which, as I remember it, the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, who is the hero, is walking along with his missionary sister on a heathery hillside in Scotland.
  • A friend of his, who is also named Sam but who is twelve years old and very political, asked my Sam to tell him everything he knew about the holiday.

Notes:  

  • "Interrupters" is not a grammatical term.  I simply refer to words that, for one reason or another, could be lifted from the sentence without drastic grammatical consequences.

Rule #3: "B" is for "before."

Put a comma before "and," "but," "or," "for," "nor," "so," or "yet" when the word connects two sentences.

  • I loved them, but every so often one of them would pass out at the dinner table.
  • I was an anxious child to begin with, and I found this unnerving.
  • Most of them didn’t drink, and they certainly didn’t have colleagues who came over and passed out at the table over the tuna casserole.
  • Some people may have wanted to get rich or famous, but my friends and I wanted to get real.
  • I tell them they’ll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing.
  • Your family would always lose the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so you’d scratch new welts in your thighs every time you got in and out of the inner tube.
  • You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer, and you stare at it for an hour or so.
  • The obsessing may keep you awake, or the self-loathing may cause you to fall into a narcoleptic coma before dinner.

Notes:
The rule only applies when these words join two sentences--not when they join two words or two phrases.



Rule #4: "B" is for "between."

Put a comma between elements in a list.

  • I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon.
  • So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other.
  • I suspect that he was a person who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grownups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being along quite a lot.
  • …looking inside himself, [C. S. Lewis] found “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.”
  • I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory.

Notes:
That comma before the last item is optional--but recommended.


Rule #5: "C" is for "clarity."

Two examples:

Use a comma between two repeated words (but not between had had):

If you’re going to leave, leave now.

Use a comma  in sentences in which you string thoughts on to the end of the sentence.

  • Another thing is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
  • All I ever wanted to do was belong, to wear that hat of belonging.
  • Sometimes I could not tell you why, especially when it seems pointless and pitiful, like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems.
  • Who were your teachers, your classmates?
  • I wish I had a secret I could let you in on, some formula my father passed on to me in a whisper just before he died, some code work that has enabled me to sit at my desk and land flights of creative inspiration like an air-traffic controller.
  • You may experience a jittery form of existential dread, considering the absolute meaninglessness of life and the fact that no one has ever really loved you.