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Common Comma Mistakes, Part 2 of 2

Posted by Capstone Editing on 17 April 2017

Common Comma Mistakes, Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 of this two-part article, we established how important correct comma use is for ensuring your written communication is clearly and accurately expressed. In this second article, we continue our identification and explanation of some of the most common comma mistakes and how to avoid them. The idea is that if you can understand and avoid these common mistakes, your written communication will benefit from increased clarity and accuracy of meaning. While the first article looked at using commas around names and commas with extra information clauses, this second article focuses on keeping your noun and verb together and ensuring clarity of meaning when listing.

Keeping your verb and noun together

It is very common for students to accidentally insert a comma at the end of a complex subject (e.g. a noun phrase), accidentally separating that subject from its verb. This is likely a result of the old (and incorrect) rule, ‘Insert a comma wherever you would take a breath’. This is not necessarily bad advice, but the reality is far more logical—every comma, when placed correctly, can be explained in terms of grammar. In the case of the noun and verb, a noun should never be separated from its verb by a comma (or any other punctuation). So, even if you must ‘take a breath’ after typing a longer, more complex noun phrase, please do so without typing a comma.

Incorrect: The most important thing, is not to separate your subject from your verb.

Correct: The most important thing is not to separate your subject from your verb.

The comma for clarity when listing

This rule applies more to British/Australian English than it does to American English. American English uses something called the ‘serial comma’ and so uses a comma between every item in a list as a default. However, correct punctuation in British/Australia English requires no comma between the last two items in a list, unless one is required for clarity. The rule of thumb to know when a comma is required between the last two items in a list in British/Australian English is this: 1) if the list is long, you will likely require a comma; and 2) if the second-last or last item in the list includes an ‘and’ or ‘or’, you will almost certainly require a comma. The following example could, in British/Australian English, not use a comma between the last two items in the list. However, it is just that extra bit clearer if one is used, and so a comma is highly recommended.

Less correct: Three important points were raised: the education service provider needs to engage actively with students, students need to feel listened to and respected and the provider should make every effort to provide students with services that suit their needs.

More correct: Three important points were raised: the education service provider needs to engage actively with students, students need to feel listened to and respected, and the provider should make every effort to provide students with services that suit their needs.

From the explanations provided in these two articles, you should be able to see a pattern. Rather than just being places one might ‘take a breath’, commas mark the boundaries within sentences. They are the crowd control of the sentence world, keeping each clause in its designated area, making sure your audience can see that you meant certain information to be ‘extra’ (and thus to be read in a different way to if it were essential/defining), you meant certain list elements to be separate, and (by not using the comma) you meant a certain subject and verb to belong together. By ensuring that your clauses and list items are not allowed to run together, and that subjects do not become cut off from their verbs, you avoid the risk of your meaning being misunderstood, or of making it harder for your reader to catch your intended meaning.

We hope that these explanations have been useful. If you have any questions about commas, we would love to hear from you on our Facebook page. 

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Common Comma Mistakes, Part 2 of 2