Mangled Meanings: Why Commas Matter, And When You Should Use Them

Commas are essential elements of the English language. They are little packages of dynamite. Without them, the world of the written--and spoken--word would be immersed in confusion, irritation, and mistaken intentions. Commas are needed for effective understanding and sentence structure; they help to separate thoughts and clauses, add in extra information and instigate breaks, pauses, and transitions.

In order to delve into the insights and effectiveness of the comma, there are a few other English grammar terms to define for clarity.

Independent clauses:

  • A set of words including a subject and verb that can stand alone as a whole and complete sentence.

Introductory dependent clauses:

  • These can be clauses or phrases that “set the stage” and give context for the rest of the sentence.


  • The joining words that connect words, phrases, clauses, and sentences, such as, “and,” “or,” “but,” “if,” or “although”.

Absolute Necessity

Commas have been known to save lives, reconnect lovers, and dissipate long-standing feuds. This dramatic little punctuation can help you keep your name and intention clear. There are countless examples of commas gone awry. From Facebook statues to trolling YouTube comments whose meanings are imbued within a scrambled mix of words and a terrifying lack of grammar.

The comma in the famous sentence, “Let’s eat, grandpa” literally saves his life. As you can see, without those powerful articles, the interpretation could easily get lost in translation--and not the romantic comedy kind with Scarlett Johansson.

The Underdog Of Understanding

Commas are the underdogs of the punctuation world; only when they are not around is their power seen for what it truly is. They add balance and flow. With too many short, staccato-like sentences, the reader would likely give up. However, add in too many commas, and you could be responsible for the reader’s overwhelm and confusion.

Here are some examples of comma uses:


The important thing to note with linking independent sentences is the need for conjunctions, as commas cannot replace necessary joining words such as “and,” or “but”. However, when the sentences are dependent, there is no need for a comma.

Independent: I discovered a new route to work, but sadly, there were no coffee shops. Dependent: I discovered a new route to work and rode it by bike.


Commas are usually used throughout the sentence of lists, except before the last item where, unless it needs an oxford comma, it would be replaced by a conjunction such as ‘and’. Another use is when there is one item in the list that has two words joined by an ‘and’, a comma is then both for identification and understanding. Example: She only needed five items from the shops; lemons, strawberries, oatmeal, dishwashing liquid and soap. Oxford comma: She only needed five items from the shops; lemons, strawberries, oatmeal, dishwashing liquid, and soap.


Commas are used for attribution when writing with quotations, whether it is an indirect or direct quote. They assist in framing and separating the dialogue script from the descriptive part of the sentence. Direct: Jane asked her son, “Do you want to go to the beach today?” Indirect: According to Jane, they went to the town’s best beach.


There is no need for a comma when the date only contains the month and year. The only time the comma is needed for dates is when the day is mentioned. Commas would then separate the day and date as well as the date from the month or year. Incorrect: She was born on 25, January, 2005. Correct: She was born on 25 January 2005.

Incorrect: She left Ko Tao on Monday January 5 2015. Correct: She left Ko Tao on Monday, January 5, 2015.

Cumulative Clauses

These subordinate elements tag-along on the trail of an independent clause that adds more description and modifies the clause itself. A sentence can contain a few of these accumulations, each separated by a comma. Example: I could see her closing in on us, the waves parting, the sound of the horn streaming through the air, passengers waving excitedly from the deck, the excitement palpable at the dock.

Essentials & Non-Essentials

Non-essentials are clauses in the sentence that should they be removed, the sentence would still be able to stand alone. These are elements in the sentence that need to be separated by commas because they’ve been added in almost as after-thoughts. The essential elements, however, are true to their name; essential for the sentence and don’t need the comma’s assistance.

Essential: The mother holding (the) pink flower is radiant.

Non-Essential: My mother, who’s holding a pink flower, is radiant.

Coordinate & Cumulative Adjectives:

Coordinate adjectives hold the same value and weight within a sentence, while cumulative adjectives build and together they modify the noun. Only separate the coordinates and never cumulative adjectives with commas. Another tip to knowing if to separate adjectives with a comma is if the sentence still makes sense when the adjectives are switched around or separated by “and,” then the comma is necessary.

Coordinate: She is a healthy, happy woman.

Cumulative: Her stylish leather Swiss watch accentuated her wrist.

As much as we can attest to the fact that we’re only human and we do make mistakes, grammatical errors have a way of reducing the reader’s opinion of the information. When you want to appear as though you know what you’re writing about, befriending the commas is beneficial.