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Marketing / Business writing

All you need is love – or commas?

After recently seeing another unclear sentence in a client's document that she was able to clarify through inserting two commas, Louise Correcha thought it might be helpful to start sharing some tips about the little things we can all do to improve our written communication.

My first tip is about commas – and more specifically, how you can improve a sentence’s clarity, and avoid misinterpretation, simply by inserting a comma after an introductory phrase at the start of your sentence.

Here’s the sentence I recently worked on:

“Rather than paying $2000 for around $100 customers can…”

I had to read it at least three times before I understood the intended message. I kept reading, “paying $2000 for $100” over and over, thinking, huh? I don’t get it! In the end, I realised the intended meaning, and that a couple of strategically inserted commas could clarify the meaning. So I edited it to read:

“Rather than paying $2000, for around $100, customers can…”

"If a sentence reads strangely, consider whether popping in a comma after an introductory phrase might improve its clarity. "

Of course, many potential customers wouldn’t persevere with trying to understand the actual meaning. They’d likely just get confused and annoyed and contact the company’s customer service department, thus potentially costing the company a lot of time and money that could have been avoided by investing in an editor. But I digress…

That first missing comma in that sentence is an example of something I see so frequently in my editing work—confusing sentences that could be made completely clear through the insertion of a comma after the first introductory phrase.

Have a look at how inserting a comma after the introductory phrase improves these sentences (take note of how they might otherwise be misread):

“If they want to win athletes must exercise every day.”

“If they want to win, athletes must exercise every day.”

“Before eating the members held the meeting.”

“Before eating, the members held the meeting.”

So think about it when you’re next looking over something you’ve written. If a sentence reads strangely, consider whether popping in a comma after an introductory phrase might improve its clarity. (And have a look at how I use commas in my writing!)

I hope you find this tip useful!

Louise Correcha is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She is a professional member of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) and heads up Red English Pty Ltd. Read more about Louise here.

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