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I have recently tried to learn how to place commas properly when writing in English, but I experienced a great difficulty in finding some good material on the subject.

My goal is to be good (or at least okay) at placing commas in English text in general, but it is mainly my academic writing I am concentrating on to begin with. More specifically, I am a mathematician, and it is in connection with my mathematical writing that I most of all would like to learn to place commas.

So far, the literature have had the following shortcomings:

  • They only cover 'compound sentences' and 'complex sentences' but not 'compound-complex sentences' of which there are tons in mathematics.
  • Instead of teaching you about long-and-complicated sentences, they tell you to write/rewrite in short-and-simple sentences. This is often not possible in mathematical writing.
  • They are mainly books on grammar and punctuation, and often only have a small amount of information about placing commas. I realize that you cannot write about placing commas without discussing grammar, but it would be nice if the commas where treated more thorough.
  • Some focus a lot on direct speech which I do not use at all in my mathematical writing.
  • Some literature seems to be a quite subjective opinion to comma placing, which does not necessarily agree with other places.
  • Many places they give examples instead of rules. This said, examples are good, and there should be a lot of them, but they should accompany rules/guidelines.
  • They do not tell you when rules are definite rules (as much as they can be) and when they are not, that is, when there is a lot of exceptions.

What I am looking for are some good textbooks (or other means) from which I can learn about placing commas. Preferably avoiding the shortcomings I mentioned above. Especially the last point above would be nice to avoid. I looked at the The blue book of grammar, and in this book the author lists 21 rules about placing commas, but do not mention whether there are exceptions or if some of them are just guidelines. My impression is that some of them are not definite rules (though I am clearly not an expert).

So far, I have tried books such as Oxfords guide to English grammar, A student's introduction to English grammar and a few others.

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    "Some literature seems to have a quite subjective opinion on common placing" — comma placing is quite subjective, and you shouldn't listen to anybody who tells you otherwise. – Peter Shor May 6 '14 at 11:56
  • @PeterShor: Yes, you are of course right, and it was a pour way to formulate what I meant. What I meant was: Sometimes it seems that people have to subjective opinions. At least for the purpose of learning how to place commas. I would like to learn, roughly, what is the common practise or what are possible correct ways. If there, in a specific case, are several correct options (at leas considered so by the majority), then I would not prefer a guide that only mentions one of these and even tells me that this is the only right way. PS This was probably more aimed at internet pages. – Kristian May 6 '14 at 12:36
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Since English is so fluid, the 'common practice' of where commas go is very subjective, unfortunately. I have not come across a book that I 100% agree with, however, there are a few fundamental places where commas SHOULD be used in the creation of meaning and their absence can cause a few unintentional mishaps. For example:

'Eat, Grandma!' Tom cried.

Here, the comma indicates that Tom is addressing his gran and telling her to eat. Without the comma, it would look like this:

'Eat Grandma!' Tom cried

Here, the meaning changes dramatically. Now, Tom is telling someone to eat his gran!

In these sorts of situations, subjectivity really should be reined in and a common practice adopted.

I recently wrote an article about the many uses of the comma that might be of some help to you, but like I said, I haven't found a book that I 100% agree with, so can't recommend one to you, sorry. However, if you take a couple of texts and compare them, you can create your own style on the use of commas. Below is mine.

http://carmelsealey.com/journal/the-importance-of-the-comma/

  • Thank you for the answer. This was not really what I was lokking for, but your guide looks nice, and I will take a closer look at it. – Kristian May 11 '14 at 20:18

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