Commas for Beginners
Inquire: Confused About Commas?
Other than the period, the comma is the most frequently used punctuation mark in the English language. The comma is also the most complicated of the language’s punctuation marks when it comes to placement. Commas serve many functions: they can separate complete sentences, separate items in a list, or they can help provide separation between phrases. Being able to understand the rules that guide comma placement can help any writer more effectively use commas. In this lesson, students will look at some rules for comma placement.
What are commas, and where should they be placed?
Watch: Let’s Pause for a Moment to Consider Why Commas Matter
Read: Common Uses of the Comma
What follows is a list of common uses of the comma in English. As you read through and study the list, keep in mind the original purpose for the comma: to create a pause in the reading and to separate items.
1. Commas are used to separate all items in a series (three or more).
I found two saws, an axe, and a hammer in the garage.
In formal writing, it is always best to include a comma between each item in the series, including the last two. This last comma is an example of the Oxford or serial comma, which occurs after the next-to-last item in a list of three or more items and before the words “and” or “or.”
They were so shy, so subtle, and so swift of foot that it was difficult to come at them.
It would make the reader pity me to tell what odd, misshapen, ugly things I made.
They groaned, they stirred, and they all uprose.
Commas may be used even when conjunctions are expressed if the members of the series consist of several words, or if the writer wishes to emphasize their distinctness. Also, note that clauses in a series are commonly separated by semicolons unless they are short and simple.
2. We also use commas to set off introductory elements.
Backing out of the driveway, I noticed a package on our front porch.
By the way, did you see Mary?
3. Use a comma to set off parenthetical statements when the parenthetical statement is brief or closely related to the rest of the sentence.
I exercised a piece of hypocrisy for which, I hope, you will hold me excused.
If the parenthetical statement is longer, and more independent, it is generally marked by dashes or enclosed in marks of parentheses instead of commas.
The connection of the mail with the state and the executive government — a connection obvious, yet not strictly defined — gave to the whole mail establishment an official grandeur.
4. Commas are also used to separate coordinate adjectives. The general rule of thumb here is: if an and or a but can be placed between the adjectives, a comma probably belongs there.
He drives a very old, unreliable car.
5. Use a comma before a direct quotation in a sentence.
The cry ran through the ranks, “Are we never to move forward?”
Closing with an exhortation, he said, “Remember, this is the best chance some of you have at redemption.”
When a direct quotation comes in the middle of a sentence, two commas are used.
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many things.”
As a final note, be careful not to use commas to set off quoted elements introduced by the word that.
Marshall McLuhan writes to Ezra Pound that “There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation.”
6. We use commas to set off phrases that express contract, or to set off words and phrases out of their regular order.
It was her money, not her charm or personality, that first attracted him.
Seated on her accustomed chair, with her usual air of apathy and want of interest in what surrounded her, she seemed now and then mechanically to resume the motion of twirling her spindle.
To most people, this will seem absurd.
7. Use commas after a noun or phrase of direct address.
John, tell me the truth.
Little boy, what is your name?
8. Use commas to set off the words however, nevertheless, and moreover, and introductory phrases like in the first place, on the one hand, etc.
Reflect: Anybody Need an Oxford Comma?
Expand: More Comma Fun!
1. Use a comma after each word in a series of words that all have the same grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence unless conjunctions are used between all of those words.
Ours is a red, white, and blue flag.
He talked, smoked, and read.
He talked and smoked and read.
However, do not precede a series of words with a comma.
Wrong: He lectures on, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
Right: He lectures on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
2. Use a comma to separate two adjectives modifying the same noun, but not if one modifies both the other adjective and the noun.
An honest, upright man.
A soiled red dress.
3. Use a comma to set off an appositive expression, or a geographical name that limits a preceding name.
He was told to see Dr. Morton, the principal of the school.
Muncy, Pennsylvania is not spelled the same as Muncie, Indiana.
4. Use a comma to separate the members of a compound sentence when those members are short and closely connected in their thought.
John carried the suitcase, I the hat box, and William the umbrella.
5. Use a comma to separate dependent and conditional clauses introduced by such words as if, when, and though, unless the connection is close.
He did not stop, though I called repeatedly.
Your solution is right in method, even if you have made a mistake in the work.
But, you are wrong when you say that.
6. Use a comma when for any reason there is any distinct pause in the sentence that is not otherwise indicated by punctuation, or whenever something clearly is omitted.
We want students, not boys who simply come to school.
Cesare had his Brutus; Charles the First, his Cromwell; …
7. You should put a comma before but only when but is connecting two independent clauses.
I would go for a walk, but it is really hot outside.
One final note: Don’t forget to put one space between a comma and the next letter that follows the comma.
Identify whether the comma or commas are placed correctly in the following sentences.
- William said, “Good morning.”
- We want students not boys, who simply come to school.
- Two women Susan and Tamika, were injured.
- To most people, this will seem absurd.
- Such a man, however can seldom be found.
- She can sing well but, she seldom will sing in public.
- Ours is a red, white, and blue flag.
- John carried the suit-case, I the hat box and, William the umbrella.
- He was told to see Dr. Morton, the principal of the school.
- He did not stop though, I called repeatedly.
- By the way did, you see Mary?
Check Your Knowledge
Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like. Once you are finished taking the quiz, click on the “View questions” button to review the correct answers.
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- Question 1 of 3
What is the purpose of the comma in the following sentence? “He drives a very old, unreliable car.”CorrectIncorrect
- Question 2 of 3
The following sentence contains an Oxford comma: “I want to buy some oranges, apples, and bananas.”CorrectIncorrect
- Question 3 of 3
The comma in the following sentence is correctly placed: “He has an old, orange sweater.”CorrectIncorrect
Additional Resources and Readings
A set of tips on using commas from the Guide to Grammar and Writing
A guide to using commas from White smoke Inc., a provider of writing tools for English
A quick guide to using commas from Grammarly, the online grammar-checking site
More review and practice with commas from GrammarBook.com
- appositive expressionNoun phrase that renames another noun right beside it.
- coordinate adjectiveAdjectives that appear in sequence with one another to modify the same noun.
- independent clausean independent clause is one that can function on its own as a complete sentence. Example: Jim studied in the Sweet Shop for his chemistry quiz.
- oxford commaIn English language punctuation, an Oxford or serial comma is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (“and”) in a series of three or more terms
- parenthetical statementa phrase that explains or qualifies something. It is generally not essential to the framing of a sentence.
License and Citations
Authored and curated by Rob Reynolds, Ph.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0
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