Today’s your chance to master a comma rule that you’ll use again and again. (It’s easy!) Picture this situation:
A mayor emails the police chief to ask if she needs to follow up on a rumor about a recent scandal in local government. The police chief sends this response:
No investigation was done.
Would it make a difference if the note included a comma, like this?
No, investigation was done.
Answer: Of course it would. Although the words are exactly the same, the two sentences have completely different meanings. That comma (or lack of it) makes a big difference.
Let’s go a little deeper. How would you explain why the comma is used in the second example? Many people would say it signifies a pause between “no” and “investigation.”
Not helpful! In fact this is a “rule” you’d do well to erase from your memory, for a very good reason: People pause in different places. Serious writers need rules they can rely on 100% of the time. Guesswork is no help.
Here’s the real reason that comma is there: It signifies that “No” is an extra idea. You could also call it an introduction.
And here’s the rule: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea. (I call this Comma Rule 1. You can learn more at this link, which also explains two other important comma rules.)
Extra ideas are in green:
Jane, your office is on the list for repainting.
Yes, we’re planning to paint your office next week.
However, we can wait for the following week.
If you’re allergic to the smell of paint, you can use another office.
When we’re finished, I’ll text you.
This handy rule covers most of the commas you’ll use in your lifetime – honest! And, as an added bonus, it will keep you from writing fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences.
Let’s take a quick look at an example. (The extra idea is in green.)
While I was questioning Mrs. Volder, Officer Brown was looking for broken glass. CORRECT. “While I was questioning Mrs. Volder” is an extra idea. Use a comma.
Now look at this version:
I questioned Mrs. Volder, Officer Brown looked for broken glass. WRONG
“I questioned Mrs. Volder” is a sentence. Use a period, like this:
I questioned Mrs. Volder. Officer Brown looked for broken glass. CORRECT
The time you spend studying, thinking about, and practicing this rule will pay off more dividends than almost anything you can do for your writing. That would be time well spent, wouldn’t it?