Pesky Commas and Comparisons

My most egregious novice editing sin was the overuse of commas. To be honest many editors and other literature aficionados have varying opinions about commas in some situations, like wether to use the Oxford (serial) comma or to place a comma before the word too. So, some of the items on this list might be my personal preference, but I promise, I’ve done the research and consulted other editors over the years to come to these conclusions. 

Without further ado, here are a few tips to help you crack down on your comma usage. 

Rarely does a comma need to fall before the conjunction but. Essentially, you only need a comma before but if the but is separating two complete sentences (independent clauses). Bonus tip: This applies to all other coordinating conjunctions: andforornorso, and yet.

Example: I went to the mountains last weekend, and I watched season four of Stranger Things with my nieces and sister-in-law. We wanted to finish the whole season in one weekend, but we weren’t sure we’d be able to watch that much TV in one sitting.

Though it’s common comma practice, you don’t need a comma before too either. This one initially surprised me and other editors I know, but Grammarly, Grammar Girl, ProWritingAid, and gasp! even the Chicago Manual of Style suggest that a comma is only necessary before too for emphasis. Because emphasis is typically the purpose of a “too” placed in the middle of the sentence, you could add commas on either side, but they still aren’t necessary. 

Example: I too am attempting to write a novel. My critique partner says she, too, is struggling to brainstorm her hero’s flaw. The characters must be flawed, but the readers must like them too.

This is another one of my own schooling misconceptions. Comparative phrases like not only/but also, neither/nor, both/and, not/but, either/or, as/as, such/that, and rather/than, don’t always need a comma. Much like the coordinating conjunctions, these phrases only require a comma when they connect two independent clauses.[1]

Example: I am not only a writer but also an editor. OR I am not only Bible study writer, but I am also a fiction writer. 

When using the word not as a contrasting element, you only need a comma if it falls directly before the word. According to CMOS, this is when not is inserted specifically to clarify a noun.

Example: I am an editor, not a typesetter. OR I am not a fan of too many commas but know they have their place. 

You should use commas after introductory phrases longer than four words (like those that begin with When, Although, Because, etc.), but you don’t need one after prepositional phrases (like those that begin with After, If, On, In, Before, To). You can use one with prepositional phrases—it’s not wrong, it’s just not necessary. 

Example: When I bought my first diary in fifth grade, I knew I wanted to spend my life telling stories. OR In fifth grade I knew I wanted to be a writer. OR In fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

These might be old hat to you, or maybe you also have to look up these rules time and again to remind yourself. Either way, I hope you’ve found this quick common comma and comparison mistakes tip sheet helpful. Come back next month for the next Tuesday Tip: Find Your People. 


What writing or editing questions do you have? Drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to get them on the blog!

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