On Commas and Comma Look-Alikes

Teacher and Students

Commas are a necessary part of any academic essay, yet their usage remains elusive to many students and what otherwise might be a strong paper is tarnished by improper comma placement.  There is a balance – an art – to using commas and other punctuation.  Becoming familiar with how commas are used in writing can greatly assist students in editing their own writing, in addition to saving time when visiting the Rutgers Learning Centers.  

Separate clauses: Fragments and Run-Ons

Commas are often erroneously used as separation between independent clauses, or replaced by periods to divide dependent clauses.  This results in run-on sentences and sentence fragments, respectively.  These are errors that could easily be fixed by reading one’s paper aloud: If it sounds wrong, it probably IS wrong and you might need to add or remove punctuation as needed.  In the case of run-ons, often a period is the only edit that is needed – but it is not the only option!  Varying sentence lengths with semicolons, dashes, and conjunctions makes a paper more interesting to read.  Look to the example of Gary Provost for inspiration: “This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”  Fragments occur when one has a thought in a paper, but never quite got to finishing it.  These can be remedied in much the same manner except one would use various punctuation to attach it to another sentence, instead of dividing sentences.  ­