Steps for Proofreading and Using Commas

Commas tend to give many writers problems. Here are four steps that will help you to proofread for commas.

Step 1

  • Give yourself enough time to read your paper s l o w l y 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 only comma mistakes. You can check for other mistakes later.
  • 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, dictionary, website, or personal 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. A more complete guide to commas can be found online or in 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 a 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

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