No matter how skilled the writer or student, commas often remain a common source of frustration and anxiety. Part of the frustration stems from the fact that there are few fixed rules pertaining to correct comma usage. Although many folks can pinpoint instances of clunky or incorrect comma usage, few can identify more than a couple of solid comma rules. For instance, most of us know to use commas when listing items or actions. Beyond that, however, comma usage often provokes confusion and uncertainty. Take this comma test to see how proficient you are in comma usage.

Let’s look at two fairly fixed rules of comma usage:

1. Comma before a conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” “so”) that is followed by an independent clause. Ex. Jimmy was not sure that he could win his case, but he wanted to do whatever it took to avoid jail time.
2. Comma after a dependent clause when the dependent clause comes before the independent clause.Ex. Worried about whether he could win his case, Jimmy listened closely to the lawyer and decided to do whatever it took to avoid jail time.

Try to apply these two rules to the following sentences, by placing the commas in the appropriate spot:

1. While Jimmy believed that he should plead guilty to avoid jail he also wondered what evidence the prosecutor had against him.
2. The prosecutor was a formidable woman and Jimmy was not inclined to underestimate her ability to sway a jury.
3. Taking his attorney’s advice Jimmy decided to plead guilty.

If you got each of those correct (see the answer key below), then congratulations! You are more knowledgeable about comma use than a lot of folks, believe it or not! 

Next Monday, we’ll take a look at some of the other common comma problems, the ones that have less clear cut answers.

Answer key:

  1. While Jimmy believed that he should plead guilty to avoid jail, he also wondered what evidence the prosecutor had against him.
  2. The prosecutor was a formidable woman, and Jimmy was not inclined to underestimate her ability to sway a jury. 
  3. Taking his attorney’s advice, Jimmy decided to plead guilty.
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