PickyKidPix asked me to help her edit her English assignment last night. She said that she’s having trouble with sentence fluency which is bringing her grade down. I wasn’t sure what “sentence fluency” means but after reading her essay and helping her fix it, I’ve decided that I need to do a four part series to help her, and hopefully other kids too on:
- How to Use the Comma
- Rich Vocabulary Part 1: Learning more words
- Rich Vocabulary Part 2: Using the Thesaurus
- The Art of Editing: Analyzing sentence structure and Taking Several Passes
Let’s get started on how to use the comma. I noticed that PickyKidPix’s first issue is that she just doesn’t the comma enough. I asked her if she reads her essay out loud to figure out pauses and she said that she did, but because she reads really fast, the lack of pauses sounds fine to her; hence she omits the necessary commas separating the descriptive phrases from the main sentence. That’s not good!
I’m pulling examples of where my daughter gets confused from Business Insider: 13 Rules for Using Commas Without Looking Like an Idiot.
Step 1: Identify the subject and predicate of the main sentence.
Circle it or highlight it and then see what is left over. Do you have two sentences? How are they connected? Chances are you:
- Need to break the sentence into two separate sentences OR
- Need to add a comma if you are using a conjunction
Use a comma before any coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that links two independent clauses.
Example: “I went running, and I saw a duck.”
You may need to learn a few grammatical terms to understand this one.
An independent clause is a unit of grammatical organization that includes both a subject and verb and can stand on its own as a sentence. In the previous example, “I went running” and “I saw a duck” are both independent clauses, and “and” is the coordinating conjunction that connects them. Consequently, we insert a comma.
If we were to eliminate the second “I” from that example, the second clause would lack a subject, making it not a clause at all. In that case, it would no longer need a comma: “I went running and saw a duck.”
My daughter is having problems with a descriptive clause running into her sentence without the separation of a comma. Having her identify the subject and predicate of the sentence will help flush out these buggers.
Use a comma after a dependent clause that starts a sentence.
Example: “When I went running, I saw a duck.”
A dependent clause is a grammatical unit that contains both subject and verb but cannot stand on its own, like “When I went running …”
Commas always follow these clauses at the start of a sentence. If a dependent clause ends the sentence, however, it no longer requires a comma. Only use a comma to separate a dependent clause at the end of a sentence for added emphasis, usually when negation occurs.
And again, finding the main sentence will help her with adverbs that introduce her sentences.
Use a comma after introductory adverbs.
“Finally, I went running.”
“Unsurprisingly, I saw a duck when I went running.”
Many adverbs end in “ly” and answer the question “how?” How did someone do something? How did something happen? Adverbs that don’t end in “ly,” such as “when” or “while,” usually introduce a dependent clause, which rule number two in this post already covered.
Also insert a comma when “however” starts a sentence, too. Phrases like “on the other hand” and “furthermore” also fall into this category.
Starting a sentence with “however,” however, is discouraged by many careful writers. A better method would be to use “however” within a sentence after the phrase you want to negate, as in the previous sentence.
Step 2: Second Pass to Identify Particular Things
She also needs to take a second pass at her essay to look specifically for particular things like a shift in a sentence that makes a comparison. She also has to be mindful of a series of items because she will often miss the last comma in the series. Finally, when she uses multiple adjectives in a row, they need separation with commas.
This editing pass isn’t difficult but requires close reading and attention to detail. She needs to read specifically to find these patterns in her sentences and double check that she’s following the rules. She can look up the rules but it would be helpful to memorize them.
Use a comma to offset negation in a sentence.
For example: “I saw a duck, not a baby seal, when I went running.”
In this case, you still need the comma if the negation occurs at the end of the sentence. “I saw a baby seal, not a duck.”
Also use commas when any distinct shift occurs in the sentence or thought process. “The cloud looked like an animal, perhaps a baby seal.”
Use commas to separate items in a series.
For example, “I saw a duck, a magician, and a liquor store when I went running.”
That last comma, known as the serial comma, Oxford comma, or Harvard comma, causes serious controversy. Although many consider it unnecessary, others, including Business Insider, insist on its use to reduce ambiguity.
There’s an Internet meme that demonstrates its necessity perfectly. The sentence, “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin,” means the speaker sent three separate invitations: one to some strippers, one to JFK, and one to Stalin. The version without the Oxford comma, however, takes on an entirely different meaning, potentially suggesting that only one invitation was sent — to two strippers named JFK and Stalin. Witness: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
Use a comma between two adjectives that modify the same noun.
For example: “I saw the big, mean duck when I went running.”
Only coordinate adjectives require a comma between them. Two adjectives are coordinate if you can answer yes to both of these questions: 1. Does the sentence still make sense if you reverse the order of the words? 2. Does the sentence still make sense if you insert “and” between the words?
Since “I saw the mean, big duck ” and “I saw the big and mean duck” both sound fine, you need the comma.
Sentences with non-coordinate adjectives, however, don’t require a comma. For example, “I lay under the powerful summer sun.” “Powerful” describes “summer sun” as a whole phrase. This often occurs with adjunct nouns, a phrase where a noun acts as an adjective describing another noun — like “chicken soup” or “dance club.”
Practicing Using the Comma
How do you get a busy middle school kid to practice grammatical rules when it’s not a school assignment. I will try two tacts:
EZ Comma is free and will drill the comma rules we reviewed above.
Here’s a video on commas for those who like to learn via screens. This is from Ted-Ed on the Oxford Comma and shows the confusion around the use of the comma! A grammatical rule that is optional? Or confusing?