Simply Writing | TO COMMA, OR NOT TO COMMA . . .

In Creative Writing by RWA Blog Coordinator16 Comments

Such a small but tricky piece of punctuation. So innocuous, yet it governs our sentence structure, and more often than not, it can tip the meaning of our writing into very different directions. To this end, it can reduce ambiguity in sentences.

Uh, not advisable.

This, however is okay.

We’re going to learn to cut and paste, kids.

Another example:

Again, probably not the best decision you could make.

This, however, is safer for everyone involved:

I like cooking, my family, and my pets.

Commas save lives!

I was contacted by a lovely RWA member, Annette, just over a week ago, with a request to write a post on commas. The dos and don’ts. The when to use, and when to leave the sentence alone.

Annette, this post is for you!

I won’t profess to be an expert. It’s the reason I always ALWAYS have my books edited by a professional editor. But, here are a few simple rules to guide you into the correct use before you get your work checked by someone who polices commas for a living.

So, to comma, or not to comma . . .

Sometimes the use of a comma is obvious, when separating items in a list, for example. Yet other times, there can be an element of doubt as to whether the comma is needed.

Before we start, let’s clarify a couple of terms I’ll use below:

Noun = a name, person, place or thing/object

Adjective = a word to describe a noun

Verb = an action or doing word

Clause = a part of a sentence that contains a verb or doing word

Introductory word = this is a word that comes at the beginning of the sentence, eg, however, yes, so, etc.

Coordinating conjunction = a joining word placed between two sentences, eg, and, but, etc.

Coordinating adjectives = these are two adjectives that are used in sequence to describe one noun

Dependent clause = this is a sentence that is dependent on another sentence for it to make sense, eg, When I went running . . .  This sentence needs something else after it for it to make sense. It even sounds incomplete, right?

Independent clause = this is a sentence that can stand on its own and make sense, eg, I went running

Nonessential clause = this is a clause that can be removed from a sentence without removing meaning

Here are some simple guidelines around the use of this powerful piece of punctuation.


1. To separate items in a list

There are times in writing, where we may need to list several items. In this case, use a comma. Most of us get this part right, until we reach the ‘and’. Then what? Here are a couple of examples to show when to and when not to use what is referred to as the Oxford comma before the ‘and’.

I saw a snake, a wallaby, and a dragon when I went running.

This suggests that on 3 separate occasions the runner encountered 3 separate animals. This can be compared to:

I saw a snake, a wallaby and a dragon when I went running.

Here the runner has only 2 encounters, one with a snake, and the second with both a wallaby and a dragon.

Is this starting to make sense now?

2. After an introductory word or phrase

There are times we might choose to open our sentence with:

a) an introductory word such as when, while, however, meanwhile, so, yes, no, etc.

b) an adverb, often an ‘ly’ word, such as consequently, surprisingly, unsurprisingly, etc.

c) a phrase such as ‘on the other hand’, ‘as a consequence’, ‘in response’, ‘in this case’, etc.

When we do this, we must add a comma immediately after this word/phrase, before we continue on with our sentence.

Surprisingly, I saw a dragon when I went running.

Yes, I really did see a dragon when I went running.

3. Before a quotation

The runner said, “I saw a dragon.”

“I saw a dragon,” said the runner.

Here are two different examples where a comma is required in relation to a quotation.

In the first, the comma comes immediately before the quotation, outside the quotation marks.

In the second, the comma comes immediately after, and inside the quotation marks.

4. Between a dependent clause and an independent clause

Remember, a dependent clause needs to be paired with another clause to make sense, whilst an independent clause can stand on its own.

When a sentence opens with a dependent clause, it is necessary to follow this with a comma before we add our independent clause.

When I went running, I saw a snake.

5. To join 2 independent clauses

This includes joining 2 independent clauses that are linked by a conjunction, ie, and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet, etc.

I went running, and I saw a snake.

I saw a snake, when I went running.

6. To bracket a nonessential clause in a sentence

Remember, a nonessential clause is a clause that when removed doesn’t alter or affect the meaning of the sentence.

I saw a dragon, not a unicorn, when I went running.

These days you can also use em dashes in place of the commas.

I saw a dragon—not a unicorn—when I went running.

However, if that nonessential clause comes at the end of the sentence, only one comma is used.

I saw a dragon when I went running, not a unicorn.


I saw a dragon when I went running—not a unicorn.

7. To separate two coordinate adjectives

Remember, adjectives are words that describe a person, object or a place, ie, a noun.

When we are describing our noun, often we will use two or more describing words to do this. In this case, we must insert a comma between these adjectives, but not between the last adjective and the object.

I saw the big, scary dragon when I went running.

But beware, there are times when a comma is not called for.

I saw a big Mandalayan dragon when I went running.

Think about this sentence. At first glance, it seems as if we have two describing words. But look again. If we were to place an ‘and’ where we would otherwise place a comma, would this sentence still make sense?

I saw a big and Mandalayan dragon when I went running.

As opposed to:

I saw a big and scary dragon when I went running.

Can you see how the second sentence makes sense, but the first doesn’t? In the first example, the adjective ‘big’ describes ‘Mandalayan dragon’ as one entity. So the rule? If it doesn’t make sense when you replace the comma with ‘and’, it won’t make sense with a comma.


1. Between 2 independent clauses (in the absence of a conjunction)

I went for a jog. I saw a green dragon.

In this case, you might even like to use a semi-colon:

I went for a jog; I saw a green dragon.

If you really want to join these two clauses together to make one sentence, then insert a conjunction or joining word between them:

I went for a jog, and I saw a green dragon.

2. To separate a two nouns referred to as a collective

Sometimes we may write about two people or objects, referring to them as one in our sentence. In this case, we should never use a comma to separate them.


Wind, and rain pelted down on me.

Rain pelted down on Fred, and Ashley.


Wind and rain pelted down on me.

Rain pelted down on Fred and Ashley.

So, there we have it! The comma in all its glory.

And that’s all folks!

I hope I’ve managed to shed some light on comma use, then whens and when nots J If you have any questions, make sure you post them in the comments beneath the blog and I’ll be sure to get back to you. Or if you have any insights or examples of great or not so great comma use, please post them too!

Firstly, thank you all for coming back this month. I really appreciate every one of you reading, commenting and sharing my posts.

And, there’s no better time than now to announce January’s winner for the 30 minute skype session:

Drum roll . . .

And the winner is:

Ruth Morgan!!!!

Congratulations Ruth! Please email me on to discuss redeeming your skype session.

And if you haven’t won yet, don’t despair. Once again this month, I’m offering one lucky commenter a half hour skype session to discuss anything writing related. It could be your query, your synopsis or 300 words from your current work in progress. Yes, you heard right. We get to chat, face-to-face—or computer screen to computer screen—about whatever it is about your writing you’d like to discuss.

To enter the draw, please comment below and share the most surprising or useful thing you’ve learned since reading my Simply Writing blogs. Any ideas on what you’d like to see featured on future blogs will be gratefully received. Or perhaps you’d like to share how you’ll start to incorporate a more active voice into your current WIP.

Any and all comments welcome! I love reading your feedback and input each month J and much as this blog isn’t set up for notifications, I always ALWAYS answer your comments. So make sure you pop back to check my replies!

If you’d like extra chances to win, share links to this blog on any or all social media sites. Tag me so I know you’ve shared, and the more shares, the more times I’ll place your name in the draw.

A name will be drawn in time for next month’s blog so please pop back next month to see if you’re a winner!


For those of you who might be interested in my upcoming workshops, dates are as follows:

Simply Synopsis
Mon 2nd March to Friday 3rd April (includes a 1 week break in the middle for catchup)

Characterisation Through Narration
Monday 6th April to Friday 8th May (includes a 1 week break in the middle for catchup)

Bookings are now open for SIMPLY SYNOPSIS, and I am still taking expressions of interest for limited spots in CHARACTERISATION THROUGH NARRATION.

If you have any questions, concerns or if you are a returning participant, please contact me on before you book.

I hope to see some of you there!

Thanks so much to you all for stopping by. Have a fabulous month, and I’ll see you all again in March!

Michelle xx

Michelle Somers

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image003-150x150.jpg

Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.

She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.

In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.

You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.


  1. Thank you, for this, Michelle.
    It is a friendly reminder of when and when not to use the annoying little things.
    One day I might master the silly comma. But maybe – not today!

  2. Thanks Michelle. Your diagrams are helpful for someone like me who will never fully understand commas, lol.

    1. My pleasure, Helen.
      I think something visual can really help with explaining concepts that can be quite difficult at times. I’m glad you found them helpful.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xxx

  3. This advice is GOLD! Thank you for helping me understand the pesky yet necessary comma, Michelle. Now I’m freaking out wondering whether I have added one correctly or not. I’ll read over this article again and again to make sure I get it right. I’ll also be checking out your Simply Synopsis OWL.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Stacey
      Yay, so glad I could help! Don’t freak out. Just bookmark the blog and refer to it when you’re not sure. Writing should be fun, not a task. The most important thing is to first get the story down. Commas don’t count in that part of the process. This post is really about checking whether you’ve got them in the right places when you come to editing your story.
      Would love to see you in Simply Synopsis. It’s not an OWL this year. I’m running my workshops independent of RWA. They have so much content, I don’t want to overwhelm participant, so I’m designing them to have a break in the middle to catch up and consolidate. If you want details, either check out the shop on my website or message me 🙂
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting 🙂
      Best of luck in the draw.
      Michelle xxx

  4. Thanks Michelle- I’m a serial comma user😁. I’m going to print this out and keep it fir my reference. Great explanation

    1. Hey Jes.
      So glad to see you back! You haven’t visited for a while 🙂
      Great idea about printing it out! or maybe just the pictures? then you can pin them to your wall.
      Thanks so much for popping by and commenting!
      Best of luck in the draw.
      Michelle xxx

  5. Hi Michelle,

    Seeing as how I sparked off this Blog I thought I’d better give an example to your readers of what I would call overuse of a Comma.

    So here’s my example of over-use of the Comma.

    Lethargic despite the odd, occasional yawn she read the drama-filled chapter in blissful peace, turning pages quickly then with David still asleep, and reaching the end of the chapter, she was finally able to close the book, staring out the window thinking of a scene not so dissimilar to the one she’d just read.

    Just thought I’d share it as an example.


    1. Hi Annette
      Yes, commas can so easily be overused to turn paragraphs into one sentence 🙂
      Thanks so much for inspiring this blog!
      And thanks for taking the time to comment.
      Best of luck in the draw.
      Michelle xxx

  6. Hi Michelle. Those pesky commas. Thanks for this. Keeping this handy. I really would love to cut and paste kids. lol. I love the diagrams. Being such a visual person, it helps big time. Thank so much, Michelle.

  7. Hi Jan
    Welcome back! I’ve missed your lovely comments each month 🙂
    I’m so glad you found this blog helpful, and that the diagrams helped.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to visit and comment.
    Best of luck in the draw!
    Michelle xxx

  8. I never thought a post on commas would be so amusing. Love the pictures, Michelle! I read recently that a court of law (somewhere) has just ruled the Oxford comma to be vital to aiding correct understanding and interpretation of written agreements. Next time my husband edits out my Oxford commas, I’m sending him a link to this post so he can see why it’s needed.

    1. Hi Karina
      lol, it was definitely fun to write. Given we’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons as a family lately, we’ve encountered quite a few dragons as a result 🙂
      Yes! I read the same article! I think that’s another reason I decided to go ahead with this post. Commas really do save lives 🙂
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
      Best of luck in the draw.
      Michelle xxx

  9. Hi Michelle
    thanks for an entertaining blog on use of commas – not a sentence I would ever have expected to use 🙂 The diagrams are wonderful and bring it to life

    1. Hi Rosemary
      lol, yes 🙂 Maybe in fantasy novels, but not in our normal, everyday lives 😛
      I’m so glad you found the post fun and helpful.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
      Best of luck in the draw!
      Michelle xxx

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