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The comma’s ancestors have been used since Ancient Greece, but the modern comma descended directly from Italian printer Aldus Manutius. (He’s also responsible for italics and the semicolon!) In the late 1400s when Manutius was working, a slash mark (/, also called a virgule) denoted a pause in speech. (Virgule is still the word for comma in French.) Manutius made the slash lower in relation to the line of text and curved it slightly. In the 1500s, this new mark acquired the old Greek name “comma”. The word comma literally meant “a piece cut off” from the Greek word koptein meaning ”to cut off”.

Other than the period, the comma is the most common punctuation mark in English, but the little mark is often misunderstood and misused, even by native speakers. The comma plays an important role in the sentence because it tells a reader when to pause briefly. When should the comma be used? The comma is often used to separate items in a list as in the sentence: “Mark went to the store to buy eggs, bread, milk, and blueberries.” The third comma in that sentence is the topic of much debate. That comma—before “and”—is called the “serial comma” or the “series comma.”  Some usage conventions require a serial comma, but others do not. Whether or not to use a serial comma can also depend on the items in the list. Consider this sentence: “For breakfast, Mary had an apple, toast and jam, and coffee.” Without the final comma the sentence would be unclear. She isn’t eating jam with coffee, so a serial comma clarifies the situation.

Commas are also used to separate independent clauses when a conjunction is used, as in the compound sentence: “Mark went to the store, and he bought eggs, bread, milk, and blueberries.” Commas have many other uses as well. When an entire phrase may be removed from a sentence, commas are used to set the phrase apart. Take this as an example: “Shelia, reconsidering her options, did not want to go to the movie.” In a similar fashion, they set off introductory participle phrases as in: “Reading over her notes, Julie realized she missed an important detail.”

Do you know what an em dash is? Test your punctuation knowledge here.

For a more exhaustive analysis of comma usage, see Ben Yagoda’s recent article in The New York Times.

Do you use the comma regularly? What do you think of the helpful, little mark?

213 Comments

  1. wolf tamer and coal miner -  February 12, 2014 - 3:17 am

    I specifically went looking for “Cyberquill’s” comment. As always, it did not fail to amuse me. :)

    Reply
  2. wolf tamer and coal miner -  February 12, 2014 - 3:15 am

    Thank you, Aldus Manutius, for a very useful, helpful, and sentence-clarifying punctuation mark. Of course I use it all the time!

    Do serial killers use serial commas? :P

    Reply
  3. Nick Harrison -  October 10, 2013 - 2:34 am

    I love the use of punctuation in language. The comma, along with the period or full stop (I’m English) imbue the text with rhythm and dynamics. I am a percussionist and appreciate the importance of this. I am also a father who used to read to his daughter. Try doing that without commas.

    Reply
  4. Johnny B. -  July 25, 2013 - 10:03 pm

    ittsee on June 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm
    “I am appalled at the ignorance shown by some of the commentators.
    Of course, commas are important. Any idiot knows that. I use them in speech quite a lot?!”

    Read more at http://hotword.dictionary.com/comma/#eZJIRbd90VTpgGQf.99

    I think you should familiarize yourself with ‘Gaudere’s Law’.

    First, I think that you meant ‘commenters’, not ‘commentators’.
    Second, you should have placed YOUR comma between ‘important and
    Any’.
    Lastly, what’s up with the question mark? You weren’t asking a question, you were making a comment. Just sayin’… ;-)

    Reply
  5. theroadnottaken -  October 6, 2012 - 5:08 am

    I love using the comma! (Though I think I might overuse it too much sometimes). Very interesting information by the way.

    Reply
  6. Erin -  July 9, 2012 - 5:45 pm

    I, passionately love commas. I passionately, love commas. Passionately, I love commas.

    Reply
  7. Joe -  June 16, 2012 - 2:08 pm

    Hey, sherryyu didn’t capitalize his/hers “I”. just saying.

    Reply
  8. sherryyu -  June 9, 2012 - 2:44 pm

    its a so-so punctionlation mark i like the semicolon better but my favorite is the colon

    Reply
  9. Mangala -  June 6, 2012 - 9:14 pm

    Those who have made adverse comments surely haven’t been told the importance of the punctuation marks!!! Hope they have learnt from some of the informative comments.
    Had it not been for the punctuation marks, a written language would not have made sense and even caused many misunderstandings! Thank God for the contribution of all these people. Learnt something new today! Kudos to you!

    Reply
  10. alex -  June 5, 2012 - 8:48 am

    wow

    Reply
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