Comma (punctuation mark) – Concept, origin, uses, examples

We explain what the comma is, how it can appear in a text, its origin and history. Also, the different uses of the comma.

The comma separates phrases or words belonging to the same sentence.

What is the comma?

Comma is one of the most common and significant punctuation marks, introducing a short pause into the text, to separate phrases or words belonging to the same sentence or to the same block of ideas. Some of its uses are very specific and easy to remember, while others are more complicated and respond to each person’s writing style, that is, to the prosodic rhythm that characterizes their way of writing.

The comma (,) generally appears alone, or as part of the semicolon (;), but is always written as a period with a small corner or tail. It is always located immediately at the foot of the words and it is interpreted as a brief pause, hardly necessary to take a breath and continue with the reading.

Of course, like the other punctuation marks, the comma did not always exist in the language, but is the result of a long historical process of evolution of writing, since in Western antiquity Greek or Latin characters were written without spaces between one and the other, and without any type of signs that separated them or clarified the specific intonation with which they should be read.

Therefore, readers and scholars had to first learn what the text was talking about before they could read it aloud correctly. On the other hand, an unfamiliar text was practically impossible to read right out of the box.

To solve that difficulty, Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BC), who worked in the famous Library of Alexandria, designed a mechanism of three types of annotation: above, in the middle and below each line of text, which served to mark pauses in reading. This is how the comma (high intonation), colon (medium intonation) and periodus (low intonation).

Aristophanes’ system was not very successful, since the Romans valued speech more than writing. But centuries later this method was reformulated by Christian scribes, at the head of which was Isidore of Seville (c. 556-636), who assigned each sign a slightly different role: short pause, medium pause, and long pause.

This is how they created the comma, as we use it today. However, it was called subdistinctio or low point, opposite to distinctio finalis or high point, precursor of the modern point.

Finally, the arrival of the printing press in the 15th century put an end to the typographical changes of these signs, freezing the shape of the comma in time to this day.

We must not confuse coma with “coma,” a medical condition in which the patient is vegetative.

Uses of the comma

The comma is a widely used punctuation mark, both in conventional writing and in mathematical notation. But while in the latter it is used to mark the beginning of the decimals of a figure ($ 1.00) or, in Anglo-Saxon countries, to mark the figures of thousands ($ 1,000), in ordinary writing the roles of the comma cover the next:

  • To separate elements of an enum. The comma appears as a separator from whatever is listed, whether things, names or figures, as well as whole sentences. In the case where entire sentences are being enumerated with their own commas, it is common for the enumeration to then be separated using the semicolon.

For example: “Last night we had a potato salad, lettuce, tomato and onion”.

  • To mark the beginning and end of a subsection. The subsections are optional clauses that appear in the middle of a sentence, and that provide additional information, without interfering with the normal operation of the text. That is, they can be read or omitted, without producing any syntactic effect. They usually contain clarifications, explanations or examples, and although they are usually enclosed in commas, they could also be enclosed in parentheses or brackets.

For example: “Simón Bolívar, The Liberator, he was born in Caracas in 1783 ”; or also: “My father, who is a forestry engineer, he brought us sesame seeds yesterday ”.

  • To build the vocative. Vocative is the call that is made in writing to a person, by name, and that is separated by a comma from the rest of the greeting or call.

For example: “Hello, Pedro!”; or also: “Can you come find me, mother?”; or even: “Get up, Lazarus”.

  • To produce an ellipsis in the sentence. An ellipsis is an omission, something that is not said because it is understood or is not necessary, and the usual way to do it in the sentence is by substituting a comma for the omitted.

For example: “Maria brought her notebooks; Patricia, no”.

  • To separate ideas and make prose fluent. This is the most complex use of the comma, since it is mostly an optional use, circumstantial and typical of each person’s writing style. However, the rule usually consists in that, when the syntax is not violated (for example, including a comma between the subject and the main verb of the sentence when it is not a subsection), nor is the natural meaning of the sentence broken, the comma It may well be used to give the reader pauses between one sentence and the next.