Business Insider and Microsoft, listed comma errors as number two and three in the top 10 grammar mistakes most people make. They are missing a comma and missing a comma after an introductory phrase.
Reader’s Digest’s annual Most Common Email Mistakes List for 2017 has three entries concerning commas out of 15. They include omitting an Oxford comma, comma splices, and missing commas.
What are these mistakes and how do we fix them?
What are commas?
The central message of the comma guide on the Purdue Online Writing Lab website is that commas can be thought of as separators. They separate clauses, phrases, and list items, as well as other portions of your sentences.
They are used to clarify large numbers, set off geographical names or dates, and prevent confusion or misdirection in a sentence.
What does Microsoft mean by missing commas? Simply that. Here are an example and the fix:
Wrong: We were overjoyed to see our uncle but we had to catch our flight.
Right: We were overjoyed to see our uncle, but we had to catch our flight.
Missing a comma after an introductory phrase technically falls under this error. Like the missing comma, it merely means there is no comma after an introductory set of words.
These words are not the main subject of the sentence; they can be a result of the central segment or an indicator of a step in a multi-step instruction.
Here are two examples and their fixes:
Wrong: First you must gather your ingredients.
Right: First, you must gather your ingredients.
Wrong: When he finishes talking we will go shopping.
Right: When he finishes talking, we will go shopping.
The Oxford comma
An Oxford comma is after the second to last word in a three or more item list and before the word "and." Example: We needed to get eggs, butter, milk, and honey. Why is this a thing? Because if it is not used the list could be misinterpreted.
Example: Mary, Susan, George, Jim, and Bill all got invitations. Without Mary, Susan, George, Jim and Bill all got invitations. It sounds like Jim and Bill got an invitation rather than each getting their own.
If Jim and Bill did get one invitation, then the second list is workable; but if they didn't, then it's wrong. You can see the problems omitting the Oxford comma can create.
Some believe the Oxford comma is not an essential rule. Check the writing guidelines of your clients to see if it is required.
The comma splice
A comma splice is an instance where a comma is placed between two independent clauses. An example would be "I went to the store, he went to the office."
There are several ways to fix this. You could separate them into two different sentences, use a semicolon, or put the word "and" after the comma.
Commas are versatile, useful tools. Use them wisely.