Comma Wars


To comma or not to comma, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The missing punctuation of outrageous run-ons,
Or to take arms against a sea of commas
And by opposing end them.

There’s no question that when it comes to writing, my wife is my fiercest critic, editor-in-chief, and most steadfast supporter. For the past 40-plus years, we’ve agreed on almost every subject—except for commas. Rather than continue our never-ending skirmishes, I thought it was time to do a little research. After a bit of digging, we discovered that we were both right—and wrong. 

Personally, when it comes to comma use, I had always subscribed to the Theory of Supplemental Oxygen. According to this theory, if you run out of breath and require supplemental oxygen at the end of a sentence, you’re probably missing a comma or two. Although probably true, is this a useful theory? Will it keep any writer out of trouble on the Comma Wars battlefield?

Given my personal experience as MWSA Awards Director—and as a writer and occasional Commakaze—I thought we all might benefit from a refresher course.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to offer a short series of excerpts from various Internet sources, outlining eight basic battlefield rules of engagement for the use of commas. Will this be a dull recitation of something we all slept through—I mean learned, during elementary and high school English classes? Maybe.  But perhaps it’s worth pointing out that one could say the same thing about the instructions that came with that new gas grill you bought at Home Depot.  You ignore those boring instructions at your peril.

After finishing these articles, if you don’t end up winning the Comma Wars, maybe you’ll at least be able to arrange a ceasefire.


Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction—such as: and, but, yet, so, or, nor, for—when it joins two complete thoughts or ideas (independent clauses).


1. Betsy read the author’s book, and then she filled out her MWSA scoring sheet.

2. Rob can apply the rules of grammar when writing his novel, or he can suffer the consequences when he doesn’t.

3. Jack and Jill went up a hill, but they didn’t come down together.


This comma informs your reader that you’ve finished the introductory phrase or clause, and you’re getting around to the sentence’s central theme.


1. When Nancy got settled at her desk to read her email, her cat decided it was time to play.

2. After suffering through the book’s early chapters, Jim discovered that the book included some worthwhile information.

3. Before she knew what was happening, Carolyn’s cat jumped on the desk and spilled her tea all over the keyboard.

That’s it for this battle in the ongoing Comma Wars.  In our next campaign, we’ll cover comma use…

  • between all items in a series

  • to set off nonrestrictive clauses (is that when Santa isn’t enforcing his naughty-and-nice list?)

If you want to jump ahead or download a comma study guide for personal use, you can do an Internet search for “comma use.”  I’ve found the one offered by Indiana University East very helpful.

John Cathcart
MWSA Awards Director