Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2009
The Legal Writer
Punctuation You Can Learn to Love:
Six Simple Steps to Correct Commas
By Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff

I recently lamented that I wished my students would love commas as I do. My husband, ever the realist, pointed out that all I could hope to achieve was to make my students hate commas less, since they probably don’t spend their Saturday afternoons enjoying grammar guides. So, lowering my expectations, I set out to create a way to prevent my students from cringing when I informed them that they would have to comb over each sentence in their memos to ensure they had used commas correctly.

The result was six simple steps to correct commas. These steps ensure that your meaning will be clear to the readers the first time they read a sentence and that your sentence will have the commas your educated readers expect. Work through all six simple steps, and your readers will be impressed by your mastery of commas, even if you missed the comma class in law school. You may even find yourself loving them!

Step One: Independent Clauses
Ask yourself if your sentence has one or two independent clauses. (Remember, an independent clause could serve as a complete sentence.) If you find that you have two independent clauses smashed into one sentence, you can correctly join them with a comma so long as you also use a coordinating conjunction. A quick way to remember the seven coordinating conjunctions is FANBOYS. This mnemonic stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So. If you have two independent clauses and a FANBOYS, place a comma before the FANBOYS and you will be well on your way to a perfectly punctuated document. For example, “The associate wrote a correctly punctuated memo, and the partner was impressed” needs a comma before the “and” because “The associate wrote a correctly punctuated memo” and “The partner was impressed” are both complete sentences. However, “The associate wrote a correctly punctuated memo and impressed the partner” does not need a comma before the “and” because “impressed the partner” is not a complete sentence.

(If you really don’t want to use a comma and a FANBOYS, you can still correctly punctuate these two clauses. First, you can turn each independent clause into one sentence, so what once was one sentence becomes two. Next, if the clauses are closely related, you can create one sentence by joining the independent clauses with a semicolon, but don’t also include a FANBOYS. For instance, “The associate wrote a correctly punctuate memo; the partner was impressed.”)

Step Two: Clarification
Step two ensures that your sentence will be clear and convey the meaning you intended. To do this, ask yourself three simple questions. First, would your readers understand your meaning initially without a comma? If the answer is no, you should add a comma to prevent a possible misreading. For instance, suppose you wrote “Those who can usually walk.” Did you mean “Those who can, usually walk”? Or did you forget to complete your thought: “Those who can usually walk the trail could not that day because of the torrential rain”? Either way, you need something more to help the readers understand your meaning on their initial reading.

Second, does your sentence have an introduction of four or more words? If so, set that introduction off with a comma. This comma will help ensure that your readers know when the real heart of the sentence starts. Trust me — all busy readers appreciate knowing when they have to start really paying attention!

Finally, does your sentence contain information that is helpful but that doesn’t affect its meaning? This rule can be somewhat tricky because whether or not you need to use commas can depend on the context. To figure this out, read the sentence without the extra information. If the meaning remains the same, you should point that out to your readers by surrounding the extra, helpful information with commas. For instance, does the sentence “My sister Tiana just finished school” need commas around Tiana? To determine that, you need to know whether Tiana is my only sister. She isn’t, so taking her name out of the sentence makes it ambiguous. “My sister just finished school” leaves you wondering which sister. Therefore, when you add the clarifying name of my well-schooled sister, you should not use commas around her name. On the other hand, the sentence “My sisters, Amanda and Tiana, are coming to visit next month” must have the commas because they are my only sisters. The sentence would have the same meaning without including their names.

Step Three: Contrasts, Transitions and Interruptions
Step two had three easy questions, and Step three has two simple questions. First, ask yourself if your sentence contains a phrase of contrast. For instance: The professor, not the students, loved commas. Phrases of contrast are set off from the rest of the sentence, so you should make sure to surround that contrasting information with commas.

Next, does your sentence have a transition or interrupting word? Like phrases of contrast, transitions and interrupters are set off with commas. For example: “The students, however, are learning to love commas.”

Remember that dates, addresses, and geographic locations are frequently used as transitions, so make sure those are correct. For “October 25, 2009,” style dates, use two commas: one after the day and one after the year. For addresses, use a comma after every element of the address, but remember that state and zip code are one element. Likewise, for geographic locations, use a comma after every element. Therefore, if a transition comes at the beginning or in the middle of your sentence, you will always have a comma after the last element.

Whew! You’re halfway through making sure your commas are correct. I promise the hard part is behind you. Can you feel yourself beginning to love commas?

Step Four: Modifiers
You need to make sure that your modifiers are correctly punctuated. Ask yourself if your sentence contains two or more adjectives before a noun. Then, ask yourself if those adjectives modify the noun but aren’t joined by an “and.” (If you aren’t sure whether both modify the noun, reverse their order; if your sentence still makes sense, then both adjectives modify the noun.) For example, “I love long, peaceful walks in the hills” needs a comma between long and peaceful because they both modify walks. The sentence would still make sense if you reversed their order, “I love peaceful, long walks in the hills.”

Step Five: Lists
If your sentence doesn’t have a list, just skip ahead to step six. If you see a list before you, ask yourself whether it’s a complex list. If each item in your list contains helpful, extra information that you have already set off with commas, you need to help the reader by changing up the punctuation. Use semicolons to separate the items. If you have a simple list, stick with commas.

Step Six: Quotations
And for the grand finale: Use this step when you quote text from another source. If the quotation needs a comma after it to fit grammatically in the sentence make sure you put the comma inside of the
closing quotation marks. “This court holds you in contempt of commas,” the judge said.

Creating a document with correct commas is really just a matter of walking through six simple steps. Bet you hate commas a little less now!

Source: Anne Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer (3d ed. 2009).

Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff teaches Legal Research and Writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is grateful to Prof. Suzanne Rowe and Prof. Megan McAlpin for comments on this article.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2009 Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff

return to top
return to Table of Contents