I have some unfortunate news for you: The comma has been pronounced to be in a coma. This is tragic! What's worse is that the doctor's told me that it has a two-percent chance of survival.
I see squiggle lines. That's a good sign, right?
I was doing some digging, and I found out why the poor punctuation mark ended up comatose. It's because it's been used to the point of exhaustion, worked liked a slave, abused and misused. What would you expect when you treat it that way? A punctuation mark can only take so much.
So I'm here to help the comma save on its co-pays and get out of the ICU. How am I going to do that? By telling you how to stop abusing it.
So what's this abuse I've been talking about. Like Lady Gaga, it comes in many forms; I'll only cover the two that I come across most frequently as an editor. But before we can even talk about the abuse, we need to define what a comma is. I'll spare you the boring dictionary definition, and I'll just give you an everyday explanation.
A comma is a punctuation mark that mostly represents a brief pause in thought. When talking, the times you need to take a quick breath before the next onslaught of words to your poor audience is when you would most likely use a comma. The pause rule of thumb can create some complex rules around comma usage, e.g., using a comma after the city and state when they are used in a sentence. Sure, you can sleep (and slobber) your way through those rules, or you can save your coolness by just using the pause rule of thumb. If you need to take a breath, you probably need to use a comma. Simple enough.
Now on the to two areas that have caused this comma calamity:
Even though it sounds like something straight out of a science-fiction movie, it's a real thing. Basically, a comma splice is using a comma to separate two sentences that don't have a conjunction between them.
"Who'sa what?" you say?
Here's a real-life example:
I'm tired, I know I should go home.
Don't do that. No, you should go home if you're tired. (No one wants you snoring at her house.) You should not, however, use a comma between those two complete thoughts. Using the pause rule of thumb, you should get the sense that the sentences require more than just a half-second pause. It requires a full pause--even a complete stop. That's too powerful for the comma to handle. (That's why it's in the coma, silly.) You need to call in a few other punctuation marks, the choice being yours of which to use.
The period to save the day:
I'm tired. I should go home.
A period indicates a full stop. That's needed between two sentences that have no other word to connect it.
I'm tired, so I should go home.
Or you can call in the comma's BFF, the conjunction, to help tackle the two sentences. More on the conjunction in a subsequent posting.
I'm tired; I should go home.
You can call in the comma's older, football-player-strength brother who can chew up two sentences and spit them out (because he eats his Wheaties). I'll cover semicolons in a subsequent posting.
Commas and Dates
Not that type of date, silly. Dates as in the month and year. You should not do this:
The financial report gives us information about sales of August, 2012.
I know it seems like these are two discrete words that express different points of time. However, you want to look at them as a unit, two words that, together, form a complete picture in your head. As a complete unit (that sounds hot), you don't need a comma to separate them. Yes, the comma can finally take a break!
It is important to note that comma requirements can vary between styles of writing. For example, Reuters has certain comma requirements that the Chicago Manual of Style thinks is idiotic. Keep that mind when using commas in more complex ways.
See, that wasn't so bad, was it? All these things you have been doing to beat down the comma and land it near death weren't even necessary. You can leave it alone and allow it to heal and make a full recovery. Hell, you could even do us all a favor and put that damn colon out of its misery. It's the Rihanna of punctuation marks: ugly, annoying, and with big features.