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Steps for Proofreading and Using Commas

When you have completed a near-final draft of your paper and you’re ready to begin looking for errors in punctuation, spelling, and mechanics, it’s often best to focus on one problem at a time. If you find that you still need to revise the focus or organization of the paper, then stop and do that before you start proofreading. Proofreading should be the last thing you do because further revisions may introduce new errors into your paper.

Commas tend to give many writers problems, so we’ll focus on them for now. Here are four steps that will help you to proofread for commas and other grammatical and mechanical errors.

Step 1

  • Give yourself enough time to read your paper slowly several times. Double-space your paper and print it out. If you try to proofread on-screen, you will probably miss errors in your paper because they are harder to see.
  • Look at your paper one paragraph or page at a time.
  • Look for one type of problem at a time (read once for commas, once for subject-verb agreement, and so on).
  • Use a colored pen or highlighter.

Step 2

  • Know what you’re looking for. Keep a list next to you of the errors you tend to make, or of those your instructor is likely to notice.
  • Keep a reference book, website, or cheat sheet handy.
  • All writers rely on dictionaries and handbooks when they proofread.

Step 3

Review the rules for the errors you tend to make. Here’s a quick list for comma rules.

Commas are commonly used . . .

  • Between items in a list, including a comma before and.
    • I’m going shopping for coffee, cream, and popcorn.
  • Before the conjunctions and, but, or or when there is a complete sentence before and after the conjunction. Otherwise, don’t use a comma.
    • Yes to a comma: I want to read this book, and then you and I can go out.
    • No to a comma: I want to read this book and then look for others by the same author.
  • After an introductory phrase or clause.
    • In the middle of the night, life in the woods comes alive with owls and raccoons.
    • When I was a little girl back in Oklahoma, I loved to listen to the owls in the dark woods near my house.

Commas are often used incorrectly to join two sentences. For more complete information about commas, consult a writer’s handbook.

Step 4

Here are some strategies for proofreading.

  • Print out your paper in 14-point type so that you can see every punctuation mark clearly.
  • Start at the beginning, covering up the rest of your paper as you focus on each line. If you’re working on-screen, use the mouse as a highlighter.
  • Start at the end of your paper and proofread for comma errors one sentence at a time. If you notice other types of errors, deal with them later.
  • Read your paper aloud—slowly—and read only what you see (not what you intend).
  • Go through your paper and circle every comma you’re unsure about and every place you suspect you might need a comma. Then review your grammar handbook to see whether or not commas are called for in these places.
  • Ask someone else to help you proofread your paper—a tutor in the Writing Center, for example. Use a spell check computer program, but don’t rely on grammar and punctuation checkers because they are not reliable.

The information on this page was written by Sandy Eckard and Ben Rafoth

  • Kathleen Jones White Writing Center
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