Just as Luke Skywalker struggled to harness the Force, many writers struggle with commas.
If you were taught at school to put a comma where you’d take a breath, forget that method now. Use a Jedi mind trick if you have to.
Using commas isn’t actually that hard. Luke learned to master the Force, and you can master the power of punctuation and use it for good.
You mainly need commas for four specific things.
Use commas to separate items in a list. This helps your reader make sense of how many items there are. For example, these two sentences have the same elements, but mean different things:
Luke Skywalker likes orange flying suits, family reunions and the Rebel Alliance.
Luke Skywalker likes orange, flying, suits, family, reunions and the Rebel Alliance.
A comma before the last item in a list is called a serial comma or Oxford comma. They can be good for clarifying meaning in some sentences. For example, this sentence needs a serial comma, even though the list has only two items:
Luke’s two faithful droids are gold and blue and white.
It could mean either:
Luke’s two faithful droids are gold and blue, and white.
Luke’s two faithful droids are gold, and blue and white.
Some people choose to use serial commas all the time, for consistency. If you work for an organisation that has a style guide, check it to see if you’re expected to use serial commas or not.
Use commas around extra but non-essential information. (Information is non-essential if the sentence makes sense without it.)
The Death Star, that hub of evil, must be destroyed.
If the extra information is in the middle of the sentence, put a comma on each side.
Luke must not, Yoda warns, succumb to the dark side.
If the extra information is at the end of the sentence, the full stop acts as the other part of the pair.
Luke must not succumb to the dark side, Yoda warns.
Sometimes names are essential to the meaning of a sentence and sometimes they’re not.
The ruler of the Galactic Empire, Emperor Palpatine, is a really nasty guy.
(There’s only one Emperor, so the sentence would clearly identify the right person even if we left his name out. Use commas.)
Luke’s droid R2-D2 has a message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi.
(Luke has more than one droid, so R2-D2’s name is essential here to make it clear which droid we’re talking about. Don’t use commas.)
Jedi Knight Luke is more powerful than he knows.
(Here the term ‘Jedi Knight Luke’ acts as a job title. The three words work together to describe one specific person and his role. The sentence doesn’t make sense without the word ‘Luke’, so the name is essential to the meaning. Therefore, you don’t need commas around it.)
Find the complete thought in your sentence. That means the bit of your sentence that makes sense on its own. If words come before that complete thought, use a comma to separate the two parts of the sentence.
One complete thought that makes sense on its own:
The Force is strong with this one.
One word before the complete thought:
Indeed, the Force is strong with this one.
A little phrase before the complete thought:
Without a doubt, the Force is strong with this one.
A long thought before the complete thought:
Whether he crosses to the dark side or not, the Force is strong with this one.
A complete thought before another complete thought, joined with a joining word (such as and, or, but, nor, yet, so):
I’ve been a poor role model as a father, yet the Force is strong with this one.
Use a comma to introduce direct speech.
Leia begged, ‘Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! You’re my only hope!’
Use commas when a sentence of direct speech is broken by information about who’s speaking.
‘Only your hatred’, Darth Vader said to Luke, ‘can destroy me.’
Use a comma to replace a full stop at the end of a piece of direct speech, if it comes before the information about who’s talking.
‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,’ Obi-Wan said to the Stormtrooper.
Sort of. Adding commas to short sentences is pretty straightforward. But the longer and more complex you make a sentence, the harder you’ll find it to add the commas. Struggling to punctuate a sentence can be a good indication that it’s too long.
Writing shorter sentences will not only help you work out where to put the commas — it will also help you explain things simply and clearly.
As Yoda would say, ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’
If you’re still struggling, come along to Grammar Guidelines for Business Writers
Thanks to George Lucas and Lucasfilm for the quotes, ideas, and characters used in this post. And for the wondrous saga that is Star Wars. May the Force be with you.