Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: Comma Confusion, Part 2

Dog Ear Publishing Professional Editors, Stephanie and Angela continue their discussion around comma confusion.

Are you confused about how to use commas? Not sure whether to scatter them about like sprinkles on a donut or use them austerely? Tune in as Angela and Stephanie discuss the best comma approach.


Stephanie: Welcome to Dog Ear Publishing’s Editor’s Corner in which we explore all things editorial. I’m Stephanie, the managing editor at Dog Ear Publishing and here with me is my colleague, Angela.

Angela: Hello everyone.

Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years and in this podcast we try to take some of the confusion out of writing a book. And today’s podcast we are going to continue the discussion we started last week about commas. So this week we are going to talk about the rules that aren’t quite so flexible.

Angela: And before we even get started, I want to take a second to thank everybody that checked out podcast last week. It was our inaugural podcast and there were growing pains as with everything, so, if you returned this week we sincerely appreciate it. We promise to keep learning and keep getting better and we very much hope that you will go along on that journey with us.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely, so thank you again from me as well.

Angela: So we’re going to talk, you said, about the non-flexible rules.

Stephanie: So, first let’s start with these basic ones that really it’s just a memorization thing. And you can find this is always noted in the style guides, but, we’ll cover them. We’ve also covered them in our Editors Corner article about commas. So, the first thing is the use of commas in dates. And one thing to remember is the commas should always be placed between the date and the year if you’re using the month, date, year format. So February 17th, 1854, there should always be a comma after 17. So, to separate the date and the year. And it’s not necessary if you follow the date, month, year format in which you say 17 February 1824. So basically here you’re looking at that you’ve got those two numbers, those two sets of numbers and so that comma is there to help the reader understand that that’s not a mistake, that space in there. That that really is intended to be two separate things. And that’s also the case with the day of the week and the month. So if you were to say Monday, February 17th, you would also need a comma between Monday and February.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: So that really, that really is the hard and fast rule there. There is no need to use a comma between season and year. I know a lot of people I see that a lot in the books that I edit, or people like to put a comma between the season and the year. That’s not necessary at all and it’s just kind of confusing. So best to leave those out. Just remember if you’re using the day of the week and the month or two sets of numbers you need a comma there.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: And then next we have addresses, which it can be kind of confusing writing them out. This isn’t one that gets used a lot in writing sentences but if you were writing out a full address and you don’t have room or the situation in fact, to have every part of the address on a separate line, you put a comma between those parts of the address. So if you were to write PO Box 926, we’ll say Crawfordsville, Indiana, you would put a comma after that 926, because that would be a separate line if you were addressing an envelope. So you need comma there.

And then another thing that is important to remember is to use the comma after the city and the state, and the state and the country or state and county. That’s to indicate the different aspects of that address, the different parts of that address. And, again, there’s really no other way to remember this, it’s just something you have to memorize and also if you are seeing, if you are listing a city and a state in a sentence so say you want say Chicago, Illinois, is a nice city. You need to have a comma after Illinois, that helps set that state off again, that’s just one of those rules that exist.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: And there’s no …

Angela: It does look a little strange when you actually see it on the page but again it’s just one of those, I guess, nationwide I don’t know did they do that in England? Separate like that?

Stephanie: You know I don’t actually know that. Anytime I edit for someone from England I still throw that in there.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: But I don’t know.

Angela: And that’s I guess important to remember too that we’re talking about style guides, American style because European [crosstalk 00:04:58] style is different so that’s a completely different topic for a completely different time, but after the city and state, the state gets a comma and you go on with the rest of your sentence.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely, thank you!

Angela: You’re welcome!

Stephanie: Thank you for that clarification.

Angela: Not a problem, that is what I’m here for.

Stephanie: And then you know we’ve got a third rule here as well to set off titles and degrees after a name, so a lot of people will have you know a nursing degree or a PHD and so you do need a comma to set off your degrees so, Alice Walker, PHD, went on to become the President of Harvard Business School. The comma comes before and after PHD and if you have a long string of titles and degrees than a comma should be used after each of them.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: However, one thing to remember and this is different than it used to be, again we’ve mentioned that styles and conventions do change through the years.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: And a very good example of this is the use of junior or senior after a name or the second or the third. So, commas are no longer used to set off those elements. So if you say, Martin Luther King Junior for example, no comma is used to set off junior. It is now considered a necessary part of the name to indicate, which Martin Luther King that you’re speaking of.

Angela: Exactly.  Or if you have somebody that is like the second or third, like Robert Tennon the third, there’s no comma for that either.

Stephanie: Absolutely, so those are the really conventional uses of commas that again have no rule that they’re just convention, or they have no, not a lot of logic necessarily other than this is what happens, memorize it. So, do your best.

Angela: Exactly.  Well, which actually makes it easier because you don’t have to think to hard with those it’s just that’s the way it is and that’s the way it stays, so. They do change on occasion but most of the time they’ll stay that way for a couple of years at least. You’ll be fine.

Stephanie: Yeah. Yeah and most of the time if you forget one, you know if you forget to take the commas out around a junior or a second or a third, most people aren’t gonna notice.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: But a few probably will but most people aren’t going to notice because they’re used to that. Kind of like British versus American spellings.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: Most people they’re not going to bat an eye.

Angela: Well it’s the same thing with Inc., like as in Incorporated.

Stephanie: Oh yes.

Angela: You used to use a comma it doesn’t use a comma anymore, neither does Limited. So if you have a company name with Incorporated or Limited, no commas.

Stephanie: Yes that’s a very good I had completely forgotten about that one, see?

Angela: That’s true. [crosstalk 00:07:46] Ties right in doesn’t it?

Stephanie: Yes! Where I am learning. Together actually.

Angela: ]That’s right we’ll go together, so, because I am so good at interrupting I want to talk about interruptions next, because commas are used to set off what are called interrupters there these little asides that break apart a sentence so if you have something like indeed or in fact or happily, they take commas. Let’s use an example. It was, in fact, an interesting choice of story. In fact is surrounded by commas. It was, in fact, an interesting story. And really I think it’s just because those little interrupters aren’t essential they could be left out and the sentence still would mean the exact same thing. So those commas just say hey, don’t really worry about this it’s in here and it fits that way.

Stephanie: Yes, I completely, completely agree.

Angela: Are you still with us?

Stephanie: I am, I thought perhaps you were going to go on more there.

Angela: There’s not much really else to say about interrupters, surround them with commas and you will be a-okay.

Stephanie: You are absolutely correct and I was just kind of lost on thinking about how commas so often do get used to set off those non-essential aspects of the sentence.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And I think that, yeah, that’s where I got stuck on was thinking about all those different times that that can [crosstalk 00:09:15] affect [crosstalk 00:09:17]

Angela: And would you like to share, you should share your thoughts on those.

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, I could.

Angela: You could!

Stephanie: One that, and then of course I am on the spot and then can’t think about it.

Angela: Yes, and you’re welcome for that.

Stephanie: Thank you, yes.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: Let’s see, there is one that I like to, that I run across a lot, my brother, Bob, for example.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: And so this is considered, non-essential information, well it could be, it could be. And this is where a lot of times I’m not sure so I have to query authors.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: Because I’m not sure necessarily sure say somebody in their acknowledgement says I want to thank my brother Bob for all of his help. Well, if you have only one brother Bob.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: One brother, and is his name is Bob, then Bob needs to be set off with commas

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Because it’s considered non-essential information. It’s clarifying, which, it’s not clarifying, it’s pointing out that his name is Bob, but if people knew you, knew you only had one brother, then that name wouldn’t be necessary.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Yes and so the commas are used to set off the name.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: However, if you have five brothers and only one of them is Bob-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: You’d probably go to and this is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl.

Angela: It becomes a soap.

Stephanie: It’s more essential.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: So if you have five brothers and obviously only one of them is Bob, then Bob is necessary so you would not use commas there. You would say, I would like to thank my brother Bob for all of his hard work in helping this happen.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: So, that is technically considered an interrupter or well I guess not an interrupter but non essential information.

Angela: Exactly, which, ironically is essential to our podcast today.

Stephanie: Exactly.

Angela: So, what next? I think conjunctions maybe?

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely.

Angela: Or, okay.

Stephanie: We discussed last time how commas are necessary before conjunctions say in a list if you’re following the Oxford style-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: And you use that comma there and they are also used if you’re, if you are linking two complete sentences, which we’re not going into that in the podcast because it, you really need the graphical depiction to understand that. So you can refer back to our article, “The Comma Rules, comma, grammar and punctuation examples,” on Dog Ears Publishing blog if you want to see more information there, but we will, so what I am covering her is just the discussion of the need or lack of need for a comma with a conjunction in certain cases. So for example, she ordered tea and honey. There’s no comma necessary there because you’re not separating, you’re not separating independent clauses there.

Angela: And it’s not a list.

Stephanie: Yes, thank you, well or it’s a two item list I suppose.

Angela: Well fair enough, fair enough, yes that’s true.

Stephanie: Or the dog fetched the bone and then buried it is another example we use because those are two verbs but you don’t have, you’re not saying the dog fetched the bone and then he buried it.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: Which technically that’s another one of those where you technically can and I’m probably muddying the waters here, so let’s go back to this.

Angela: Okay.

Stephanie: There is no need for a comma before a conjunction when you really, when you are separating only two items that do not stand on their own as complete sentences.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: So, I see a lot of people who like to throw in a comma before and, and or because they get really confused, but if you’ve only got two things it’s probably best just to leave that comma out. So, she ordered tea and honey. Do you prefer roses or violets? He felt shy but curious. There’s no need for a comma there anywhere.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And again I think that’s just easier to remember if you only have two things that are separated by a conjunction and no other item in the list you can just leave that comma out most times, probably 99% of the time you are gonna be correct.

Angela: That’s true. And I actually only have two other things I want to add to that. Commas with the words, Oh, or Ahhh. Oh, you’re right. Always a comma after oh. Or, Ahhh, we made it, finally! Always a comma after ahhh. But strangely, oh no! No comma. Oh yeah! No comma. It’s a little bit wonky, it doesn’t make sense but for some reason that’s kind of the rule and that’s the style that you’ll see.

Stephanie: Yeah I think it has more to do with the way that you kind of run those words together.  

Angela: That is true.

Stephanie: You can say, oh no! Or, oh yes! As opposed to ahhh, there it is.

Angela: There’s no pause, right?

Stephanie: Right. Right. Exactly. And so when you run those words together and when you mentioned in our previous podcast oh my God. There, there’s no comma there anymore. There used to be actually.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: I remember learning that originally that you know to use a comma there, but it’s become acceptable now people understand you’re just running those things together.

Angela: Exactly. And the second thing, which goes into that again. It’s the two terms, which and that. So, in Chicago Manual, we will call it CMS, the example is, the final manuscript, which was well formatted was submitted to the publisher on time. Which, don’t we all wish that happened, but the word, which almost always get a comma before it. The word that, doesn’t. So if I am saying something like, the final manuscript that was well formatted was submitted to the publisher on time. There is no comma in that entire sentence but little almost clauses that start with which are surrounded by a commas.

Stephanie: Again, that’s another one of those bits of inessential information.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: I think when you’re using that phrase, which was perfectly perfect the first time.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Sorry, I didn’t have your sentence in front of me. And now this is another point that it is important to remember this an American style.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: Because, which and that, quite often get used interchangeably in England successfully.

Angela: That’s right, that’s right.

Stephanie: And they do in speech a lot in the U.S., but for formal written English, in the U.S., it is the requirement to have that comma before the, which.

Angela: Exactly. I think well you’ll see the terms essential, non-essential, restrictive, non-restrictive and I mean, it just basically comes down to is this so important to the sentence that it has to be there in which case there are no commas or could I [crosstalk 00:16:39] probably leave it out and it would still be understandable, that’s where you put your commas.

Stephanie: Absolutely that is always a great rule of thumb to keep in mind for probably what, half of comma usage?

Angela: Probably so, I think you have like two groups of people. You have the people like me when I first started writing, it was commas probably every two or three words. I don’t know why but my college professor said that I love commas too much and I really need to let it go a little bit. But there’s the other camp that just run on sentences, no commas at all.

Stephanie: Uh huh.

Angela: And we’ve got to get to the point where there’s just enough that it makes sense but it’s not overkill and it’s not so little that you can’t understand what the writer is trying to say.

Stephanie: Right, absolutely. And so we come back to the guidance from the CMS-

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: That really commas are all about aiding and understanding. That is really the most important function and so for the most part again you have flexibility except in the things that we talked about in this podcast. I think though that is more than enough. Do you have anything to add Angela?

Angela: I think really at the end of the day if writers are listening to this and it’s, I mean, even for us, like we’ve said it gets confusing even for editors to keep all these things in mind, but, that’s what we’re here for. If you have questions, if you really just aren’t sure what style guide you need to be following or how to put commas in or anything that ever falls around the structure or the detail of the novel, ask us. We are glad to help. If you can find an editor that you trust that will be honest with you but also tactful and that you are willing to take their advice and not, we’re not looking for blind obedience. I mean we do make mistakes and we just want your book to be the best that it can be and for the audience that you’re trying to reach to fall in love with your book.

Stephanie: Yes.

Angela: So if you can keep that in mind we’re not trying to change your voice.  We’re not trying to take over your novel, I promise. But we would love to help you and if you can search out there and find an editor that you trust than that will get you to where you need to go.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. And so that is, that is our time for this week and we still haven’t determined what we are going to speak about in our next podcast but we would love to know what you have questions about.

Angela: Absolutely.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: And that you want answers to so until next time, keep writing.