Commas matter

Can’t figure out why commas belong in certain places in sentences but not others? You’re not alone. In English, we use commas in many different ways, so their presence in (or absence from) a sentence may seem arbitrary. However, commas do play an important role in guiding readers through a sentence: they separate parts of sentences at important points, signal nonessential information, and even make dates easier to read. For this reason, adding a comma where it doesn’t belong or leaving one out where it does belong can make it tricky for your readers to figure out what you’re talking about. Furthermore, in some cases, it can drastically change the meaning of your sentence.

One situation in which commas can change the entire meaning of your sentence is when they’re used to identify someone you’re addressing directly. For example, if Alma writes “Let’s eat, grandma,” she’s essentially talking to her grandmother and saying that they should both eat. The comma between “let’s eat” and “grandma” indicates that Alma is directly addressing her grandmother. However, if Alma forgets to include the comma (“Let’s eat grandma”), she’s inviting other people to join her in eating her grandmother. See how much of a difference a comma can make? In one case, Alma is eating with her grandma, and in another case, she’s eating her grandma!

The “grandma” example is a bit of an extreme one — most people who see the “Let’s eat grandma” version of the sentence would probably assume that Alma wants to eat with her grandma, not that she wants to eat her grandma. However, we can also find examples that aren’t so extreme, and as a result, aren’t as easy to interpret. For example, if I write “Call me, Maria,” I’m letting Maria know that I want her to call me. In comparison, if I take the comma out and write “Call me Maria,” I’m asking people to refer to me as “Maria.” In some contexts, it may be easy for a reader to figure out that I actually want someone named Maria to call me even if I’ve written “Call me Maria.” In other cases though, it may not be so easy to figure out what I mean. For example, if my first name is Maria and I’ve written an email to a group of people, one of whom is also named Maria, what did I mean when I wrote “Call me Maria”? Did I mean to let everyone know that they can call me by my first name (instead of by my last name), or did I mean to tell the other Maria to call me?

As you can see, one little comma can make a big difference in what your sentence means. To make sure that your sentences mean what you want them to mean, use a comma when addressing someone directly.

Have questions about how to use commas correctly? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.

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Commas matter: “Let’s eat grandma” doesn’t mean the same thing as “Let’s eat, grandma”
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