Yes, commas. Let’s talk about them a little bit. Most writers don’t use them enough. There are those few comma-happy writers, of course, but I’ve noticed a few places where lots of people neglect these handy little guys. And yes, it is important, because if a comma is missing, it can cause a reader to read the sentence wrong, then have to go back and re-read it when they realize that wasn’t quite right. You don’t want to do that to people too much; it gets distracting. There are three main offenders I see a lot with comma underuse.
1.Hooking up two sentences. If you have two or more parts of a sentence that could be sentences on their own, you can join them either with a semicolon (;) or with a comma and a conjunction (and, if, but, etc.). The main exception is when both parts are really short. One test I like to use: did the subject change? If my sentence is “I ran around the park and decided to hop on the swing,” I didn’t change subjects—I did both actions. But if you switch subjects: “I ran around the park, and my dog decided to hop on the swing,” you need a comma. Otherwise a reader might see “I ran around the park and my dog…” and first think that I ran around the park and around my dog. They’d figure it out pretty quickly, but it’s jarring. (I guess a dog hopping on a swing is jarring, too, but that’s what popped into my head.)
2. Before and after direct address. There’s a difference between “I don’t know about that cowboy” and “I don’t know about that, cowboy.” The first is talking about the cowboy; the second is talking to the cowboy. If you have a character addressing another one, commas always set off the person’s name (or whatever they’re being called, like “cowboy” or “kid” or “you big jerk”).
- At the beginning of a sentence: “Janie, would you come here please?”
- In the middle of a sentence: “I was on my way home, Mom, but the guys wanted to have a snowball fight.”
- At the end of the sentence: “Don’t forget your keys, honey.”
3.Added info. When you add something into the middle of a sentence, like this clause right here between the commas, you need to set it off with commas. Before and after. A lot of people add the comma before but forget the one after. Some examples:
- “I like chocolate, seeing as how it’s like eating a piece of heaven, but I’m trying to stop.”
- “She came out of her room, her hair looking like a rat’s nest, and plopped down on the couch.” (My six-year-old inspired me with that one this morning.)
- “I called Bartholomew, hoping to reassure him, but he didn’t answer.”
These are definitely not the only times you need commas (they also belong in lists, after an introductory word or phrase, and so on), just the ones I find missing most often. Remember: commas are your friend. Let them help you!