Proofreading Tips: Commas.

By Catriona Tippin. 

Grammar bug -
The Comma Butterfly

Here’s a look at proofreading your commas. 

This isn’t a complete grammar lesson on weak interruptions, non-restrictive relative clauses and all that jazz. It’s a reminder of four of the main uses of commas and some hints on errors to spot.

Check listing commas 

We read Dogger, Matilda, Skellig and Holes. 

Check for consistency with your listing commas if you’re using Oxford commas. An Oxford (or Harvard or serial or series) comma is conventional in US English and is the house style for Oxford University Press. It’s a comma added before ‘and’ (or ‘or’) in a list:

We read Dogger, Matilda, Skellig, and Holes. 

An Oxford comma can add to clarity if the items you are listing include the word ‘and’:

We read Five Children and It, Swallows and Amazons, and Noughts and Crosses. 

Sometimes an Oxford comma will remove ambiguity. An infamous photo caption for a country singer stated:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. 

Of course, that caption needs a comma before ‘and’ (though I’d suggest changing the order of the items in a list like that).

Oxford commas can be used only when necessary for clarity, or always. Checking for consistency needs to be done with either option.

You can use semicolons to separate if there are commas in the items listed:

We read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See; Not Now, Bernard; Clarice Bean, That’s Me; and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day. 

Check bracketing commas 

Bracketing (or isolating) commas surround a word or a phrase which is not essential to the sentence. The sentence makes sense with or without the words between the commas. Bracketing commas always come in pairs. Check you haven’t omitted that second comma: 

It is difficult, I have found, to proofread your own writing. 

We’re going on a hunt, for a bear, through long, swishy grass. 

The last example also appears in my article on dashes and your writing style, or the sentence you’re checking, may make dashes more appropriate than bracketing commas.

The 88 Butterfly, or maybe
comma and semi colon?

Check gapping commas 

Gapping commas are used in sentences which have a word or words omitted to avoid repetition. Instead of

Roald Dahl wrote Matilda, Shirley Hughes wrote Dogger and Louis Sachar wrote Holes. 

gapping commas allow

Roald Dahl wrote Matilda, Shirley Hughes, Dogger and Louis Sachar, Holes. 

In the next sentence, the gap is ‘favourite writing location was’ –

Roald Dahl’s favourite writing location was a shed, Maya Angelou’s, a hotel room, and Edith Wharton’s, her bed. 

There is a natural rhythm for gapping commas, you can check for them (and correct their absence) if you read aloud. 

Check joining commas 

You’ll find prescriptive grammarians care about joining commas. The convention is that if you have two potentially complete sentences either side of a comma you need a coordinating conjunction before the second one, like

and , but, nor, or, so, while, yet 

to avoid a comma splice. There are so many examples of good writing awash with comma splices that it’s difficult to take this ‘rule’ seriously. Checking is worth doing, though, as you might find an occasion where a semicolon is appropriate. Semicolons separate closely related clauses where you don’t want the finality of a full stop. Coordinating conjunctions do not follow semicolons, and reading aloud helps spot an appropriate location for one. Semicolons are falling out of use, but you might like to indulge. They are not just “to show you went to college”, as Kurt Vonnegut joked – but they are an endangered species. Use with care!

More on punctuation marks in future Proofreading Tips… 

In the meantime, click here for Catriona's previous Proofreading Tips.

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).

Butterfly images credit - By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Thanks, Catriona. Very thorough & useful.

  2. Great post Catriona - you're proofreading series is an invaluable resource to Scoobies. Thank you!

  3. Thanks! Will just add here – the other main use of commas is to punctuate speech. With the differences between US and UK English, and the differences between various house styles, it’s difficult to write a definitive guide to this. Copy the style used by your publisher or a publisher you like (commas in or outside double or single speech marks, etc).

  4. The paraphrasing online is a best tool in which you can get all tips of paraphrasing.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.