I’m generally on board when it comes to Ernest Hemingway: I like the books; I like the beard; I like that he uses commas sparingly. Though I do think the last two are rather hard to pull off for anyone other than the great EH. One does need to pause for breath now and again and, if you follow the rules, well placed commas can be an asset to your writing. Here’s how to use them:
For example, the terminator’s Christmas list: ‘Clothes, boots, motorcycle.’
2. To put a section of the sentence in parenthesis.
‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous catchphrase, the one from The Terminator, hopefully doesn’t apply to his political career.’
3. To indicate divisions between clauses in a complex sentence.
‘Arnie might, if given the funds and opportunity, make a sequel to Total Recall, focussing on his character’s declining short term memory: Partial Recall.’
4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it a smoother read.
‘Released in 1990, Kindergarten Cop is an indisputable triumph of the genre.’
5. To introduce or end direct speech.
‘Your clothes,’ he demanded, ‘give them to me, now!’
Generally, try reading your sentence out loud to see where the pauses naturally fall. Then decide, based on the guidelines, whether a comma would fit there. Essentially, a part of your sentence must be a complete clause. If it isn’t, you’ve used too many commas!
It is important to get them right: a misplaced comma can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. See seals.
In terms of Oxford commas (commas before ‘and’ in a list), the convention is not to use them in British English unless their omission could cause the meaning to be misinterpreted. See below.
In creative writing, like Ernest Hemingway’s, commas can be omitted for effect to create a faster pace, but make sure that the sense of the phrase is preserved.
It’s been said that when Joseph Conrad emerged from his study one midday after a morning of writing, his wife asked what he had done. He said, ‘I took out a comma,’ She asked the same question that evening after several hours’ more work. He said, ‘I put back the comma.’ The moral is: commas matter.
If you would like any help putting yours in the right places, do get in touch!