Wield commas like a Jedi Knight wields the Force

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.

1. Use commas in lists

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.

Image, Lego C-3PO and R2-D2.

Luke’s two faithful droids are gold, and blue and white. Image by Robert McGoldrick / CC BY-ND

2. Use commas around extra information

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.

Image, Lego Yoda.

‘Powerful you have become. The dark side I sense in you.’ Image by Chris Isherwood / CC BY-SA

Take care with names

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.)

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.)

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.)

3. Use commas before complete thoughts

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.

Image, Lego Darth Vader and Stormtroopers.

I’ve been a poor role model as a father. Image by Chris Isherwood / CC BY-SA

4. Use commas in direct speech

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.

Image, Lego Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and droids talk to a Stormtrooper.

‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ Image by Chris Isherwood / CC BY-SA

Is it really that easy?

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.’

Need more help?

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.

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8 responses to “Wield commas like a Jedi Knight wields the Force”

  1. Paul Veltman says:

    Thanks Eleanor!
    Yes, I agree. Thanks for giving this some thought.
    Cheers,
    Paul

  2. eleanor meecham says:

    Someone emailed me with a great question about the comma in this piece of speech: ‘Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi! You’re my only hope!’ He asked whether we need the comma between ‘Help me’ and ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’.

    It is correct to use a comma here, as we’re setting off the name of the person who’s being directly addressed. This isn’t the same as the situations described in point 2 of this blog post, where we’re talking about people, not to them.

    Using commas to set off the name of the person being directly addressed can help to avoid confusion. A classic example is the difference between these two sentences:

    ‘Let’s eat, Grandpa!’ (Come on Grandpa! Dinner’s ready.)
    ‘Let’s eat Grandpa!’ (Let’s cook Grandpa and eat him for dinner.)

    If you think the comma looks optional or unnecessary in this sort of situation, it’s probably because of email. The way we address people in email is generally less formal than in a letter. These days, we’re used to dropping the comma when we address people directly in emails. Strictly, the correct grammatical form is this: ‘Hi, Zelda’ (with a comma). But few people do this today. Mostly, we do this: ‘Hi Zelda’ (no comma). Just remember that what’s fine for email isn’t necessarily going to work in other contexts.

  3. Roger Meecham. says:

    I wish I’d been taught this at school, instead of putting a comma when you take a breath.

  4. Paul Veltman says:

    Nice article! It’s great to learn a new punctuation pattern, and now that I know how to use a comma for direct speech, I suddenly see them everywhere!

    But, I was surprised to see how Yoda’s idiosyncratic syntax (possibly Star Wars’ greatest and most distinctive contribution to modern rhetoric) has been punctuated in the article.

    A line like “Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.” is an example of anastrophe – a rhetorical device used by writers such as Shakespeare, Yeats, and, more recently, by Tolkien (e.g. “In a hole in the ground there lived …”).

    However, it is usually written as one sentence, not two, and using a conjunctive comma.

    • eleanor meecham says:

      Thanks Paul. What an interesting comment!

      Indeed, speak in anastrophes Yoda does. (For anyone who’s wondering, an anastrophe is the inversion of the usual order of words or clauses.)

      Both of the clauses we’re talking about are anastrophes because the word order is reversed in each:

      Powerful you have become. (Instead of, You have become powerful.)
      The dark side I sense in you. (Instead of, I sense the dark side in you.)

      As each is a ‘complete thought’ (independent clause) we could put either one first:

      Powerful you have become. The dark side I sense in you.
      The dark side I sense in you. Powerful you have become.

      I would argue that to join them together in one grammatically correct sentence we’d need a semi colon, a dash, or a conjunction:

      Powerful you have become; the dark side I sense in you.
      Powerful you have become — the dark side I sense in you.
      Powerful you have become, and the dark side I sense in you.

      Of course, we’re kind of nitpicking here as there’s no one right way to transcribe direct speech. You have to do your best to punctuate it based on how it sounds.

      Thanks for an interesting discussion. Love how Yoda talks I do.

  5. Diana Burns says:

    This is the best explanation of how to use commas I’ve ever seen. Bravo! (Though I’m not a Star Wars aficionada, so struggled with the cast of characters)

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