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My English teacher took some points off on a recent paper of mine based on improper comma usage, so I'm coming here for clarification. Here are the examples. The [x]'s indicate where the commas were deemed missing and I was marked down accordingly.

When I was younger[x] I skipped the superhero phase, and never really thought twice about it.

At this point[x] the character becomes ridiculous as he becomes a God.

I was under the impression that commas are generally used to indicate pauses in speaking, connect independent clauses, delimit lists, or signal appositives. For example, many authors and speakers may use commas more frequently than others to indicate many pauses in speaking, whereas others prefer a more rushed manner of speaking (Had I been in a more pensive mood, I may have included the commas, but my manner of thinking at the time felt the chosen method more accurately represented what I was attempting to depict.)

Is one wrong and the other not? Is my teacher correct? Are there set-in-stone comma rules that are to be consistently followed in order to be proper? If so, are only creative writers and authors allowed to break those rules?

Thanks for reading.

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    If your teacher is using / remembering a style guide from the 1950s, almost certainly it will insist on commas where you leave them out. I'd certainly not be constrained by such a 'rule', and your analysis is sound. But I'd go with your teacher's opinions on style when writing for [singular] them for the time being if you want to get the marks. Remember older people don't know everything like younger people do. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 10 '14 at 8:51
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    Nobody. Understands. Punctuation. – Mina Sep 10 '14 at 9:40
  • Thank you, @Mina, for that link. I will now begin sentences with "and" and "but" with no guilt! Isn't iconoclasm grand?! – Cyberherbalist Sep 10 '14 at 17:22
  • But I'm puzzling over what the heck is an "Oxford comma"? – Cyberherbalist Sep 10 '14 at 17:28
  • An oxford comma is a comma that comes between the penultimate item and a conjunction such as and or or in a list, e.g., I want you to buy milk, eggs[,] and butter. – Jasper Locke Sep 11 '14 at 5:20
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With my personal writing style, I would have punctuated the first sentence as follows:

When I was younger, I skipped the superhero phase and never really thought about it twice.

Here, I chose to use a comma at the first juncture only and not before the 'and'. I used a comma here because the first clause adds context to the entirety of the sentence and there is no change in focus. If the tense of the sentence was changed partway, then your punctuating would be more understandable.

For example:

When I was younger I skipped the superhero phase, and I still haven't looked back.

Here the comma adds emphasis to the changing of focus of the sentence.

For the second case, I would have made a few more changes than just punctuation:

At this point, when a character becomes god-like, they appear ridiculous.

Here the "when a character becomes god-like" sub-clause acts as an explanation for the main clause "At this point they appear ridiculous". This feels less 'clunky', removing the repetition of "becomes" and the awkward placement of "as he".

Hope this helps.

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Every Standard English guide I have used to teach college composition classes deems the comma after an introductory phrase necessary while there has never been a rule in those guides that commas should be used in writing to indicate a pause. If your teacher is merely applying the agreed upon rules of Standard English, then he or she is correct. But if the class is Creative Writing, then you should be able to develop your own style which may or may not employ various punctuation rules. Some authors have chosen to use few to no punctuation marks with great success (Cormac McCarthy, for instance). However, your use of the word "proper" indicates to me that you are not in a creative writing class.

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Short answer:

You are not wrong; your teacher is just asserting her/his authority over you by being overly nitpicky. English teachers have a long standing tradition of doing so. If you want to get a good grade, you have little choice but to follow the guidelines set before you by your English teacher. Unless of course you can find specific reference in your text showing how you are correct and your teacher is not, (you may get the points) but this will surely lead to a fury of overcompensation which will force you to submit to an even higher level of scrutiny on any future assignments.

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