The comma pops up everywhere in written texts; it’s one of the most commonly used punctuation marks — and one of the most useful. However, for writers, it can be problematic when you’re not sure if you need one or, if you do, where you should position it within your sentence.
So, why do you need commas, and where should they go? Well, as I’ve already said, commas are useful and versatile and do several relevant jobs to make your meaning as clear as possible for readers.
For example, amongst other things, commas are helpful when you’re creating lists, separating clauses, and creating appropriate breaks within a sentence. Placed correctly, they ensure that readers clearly understand what you’re trying to say. When they’re not used properly, misunderstandings can happen that can completely change the message you’re trying to convey.
Without commas, long sentences wouldn’t make much sense and could end up meaning something very different from your intention. They would also be difficult to read and mentally process.
Here’s a good example of the comma in action clarifying the meaning of a sentence:
“Today I cleaned the bathroom living room and dining room; after which given that I had worked all day I decided to take a nap.”
Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Let’s try it again, this time with commas:
“Today, I cleaned the bathroom, living room, and dining room; after which, given that I had worked all day, I decided to take a nap.”
Do you see how much easier that last sentence was to read and understand because of the commas? Now, let’s have a look at some of the other jobs that commas do:
Separating a Series of Words
As the example above shows, commas are helpful when you’re making a list or need to separate a series of words or phrases. Have a look at the following examples to see how they punctuate the sentence to make a list or series of words easier to read and understand:
“Be still, don’t make any sounds, and listen carefully.”
Here the commas separate a list of three distinct commands, giving each equal weight and making the meaning clear.
Would you like cake, chocolate, fruit, or something else?
This sentence is a question as well as a list, so commas have been used to separate the different items on offer to avoid any confusion.
I can’t hire him because he is lazy, unmotivated, vulgar, and has a short temper.
This sentence is a statement containing a list of four adjectives separated by commas that make the speaker’s opinion clear.
Using Commas To Create Pauses Between a Series of Different Phrases
Sentences often have several different parts made up of a series of different phrases. Just like a straightforward list, each needs to be set off from the others using commas. Let’s look at these examples:
“Your tasks for the day are cleaning the house, finishing your homework, preparing dinner, and taking out the garbage.”
“There are many sites to see, several restaurants to try, and lots of bars to visit.”
Each of these statements is a little bit like lists — they are made up of a series of different items that need to be individually separated from each by a comma to make sense.
Connecting Two Independent Clauses
What is an independent clause? An independent clause is a sentence, but it can also be part of a longer sentence that contains other clauses and elements. When you have two independent clauses in the same sentence, they often relate to each other. Here’s an example:
“The house is quite beautiful.”
This is a simple, independent clause that is also a sentence. But it doesn’t tell us much about the house, except that it’s beautiful. Let’s say something else about the house by writing another sentence with a bit more description:
“It’s a fixer-upper.”
These are two separate sentences, but each relates to the other—they both refer to the same house. Yet each seems a little incomplete. Adding a comma to unite them into a single sentence is what’s needed, like this:
“The house is quite beautiful, but it’s a fixer-upper.”
Here’s another example of joining two independent clauses:
“He rode all the way to the city.”
“He found what he was looking for.”
Now, join them with a comma to make a longer, more informative sentence:
“He rode all the way to town, and he found what he was looking for.”
This principle works to link all sentences/independent clauses correctly within a longer sentence. But longer sentences often contain other elements that aren’t sentences in their own right—in other words, they don’t make sense by themselves but need the independent clauses in the sentence to give them meaning. At the same time, they add information to the sentence as a whole. Let’s look at these cases next:
Using a Comma To Start Sentences With Introductory Words
Some sentences start with a single word, introductory words, which aren’t sentences/independent clauses, but still add useful information or qualification to the sentence as a whole. Use a comma to separate these introductory words from the other elements of the sentence:
Let’s say you’ve decided to visit your friend. You might write to them saying:
“I’ll see you in September.”
But maybe you’re not sure you’ll have the money, so you might say:
“Hopefully, I’ll see you in September.” or “All being well, I’ll see you in September.”
Here are some other examples:
“Well, let me see what I can do.”
“Yes, I look forward to it.”
“Now, don’t get too hasty!”
So, when using an introductory word, don’t forget to follow it with a comma.
It’s not only introductory words that need a comma after them: The same rule applies to longer introductory phrases and clauses, too. Commas help to pave the way to the first sentence/independent clause of the whole sentence. Have a look at these examples:
“Having realized the mistakes he had made, Benjamin apologized to his family.”
“As we approached her home, I got a weird feeling about the hitchhiker we picked up.”
In the first example, you can see that the introductory phrase, “Having realized the mistakes he had made,” makes no sense by itself. It’s not a sentence/independent clause in its own right. However, it qualifies the meaning of the following sentence/independent clause, “Benjamin apologized to his family.” Because of this, a comma is used to off-set the introductory phrase from the rest of the sentence. The same applies to the second example.
This process can be reversed, so that the introductory word or phrase comes at the end of the related sentence/independent clause with the comma preceding it, like this:
“Benjamin apologized to his family, having realized the mistakes he had made.”
Using a Comma To Separate the Parenthetical Elements of a Sentence
Parenthetical elements can appear anywhere in a sentence and, rather like an introductory word or phrase, add information to a sentence and enhance its meaning. A parenthetical word or phrase is separated from the main part of the sentence by enclosing it in commas. My first sentence here contains a parenthetical phrase. Can you spot it?
A parenthetical word or phrase can be removed from the sentence/independent clause without affecting its structure. Let’s look at these examples where I’ve underlined the parenthetical word or phrase enclosed by commas:
“The stadium, which was shut for winter, reopened last week.”
“Alchemy, although it is quite intriguing, is really a pseudoscience.”
“I watched a play at Jagriti Theatre, Bangalore, last month.”
“This is, after all, the best meal I’ve had in weeks.”
Using Commas To Separate Coordinate Adjectives
Coordinate adjectives are used to modify nouns to enhance their meaning. Look at these examples where I’ve underlined the noun:
“He is a smart, intelligent, and witty person.”
“She is a lazy, incompetent worker.”
“Clare very much appreciates a delicious, sumptuous meal.”
You can see how the adjectives give information about the nouns in the sentences. The adjectives before each noun are describing it: “a witty person,” “a lazy worker,” and so on. Notice that commas separate the adjectives. Commas are always used to separate coordinate adjectives before a noun in a sentence.
Using Commas To Separate Direct Speech or Quotes
When you’re writing what someone is saying in a sentence, known as direct speech, or you want to quote what someone else has said, the rule is that commas should enclose the speech or quoted material. The following examples show this in action with the commas underlined:
John said, “I don’t like this new neighborhood.”
The professor asked, “Do I bore you, Benjamin?”
“I’d prefer if you did not sleep in my class,” the professor added.
My sister says, “I don’t want to go to the zoo, but I’d love to go.”
Plato famously said, “Cogito ergo sum,” which means, “I think, therefore, I am.”
The last example also contains a parenthetical word enclosed by commas. Did you spot it?
Using Commas To Highlight Two or More Contrasting Sentences/Independent Clauses
Commas are always used to set off sentences/independent clauses whose meaning expresses contrast. You’ll see it at work whenever qualifying words like “but,” “not,” “yet,” and “although,” amongst others, are used to highlight the contrast between the two. Take a look at the following examples where I’ve underlined the comma and following qualifying word:
“He claims that he is innocent, yet the photographic evidence proves otherwise.”
“Peanut butter may be healthy, but it has too many calories.”
“Preach love, not hate.”
“She is pretty, although she wears too much makeup.”
Using Commas To Separate Dates, Years, and Addresses
We don’t often notice the role commas play in including dates, years, and addresses in sentences—we tend to take them for granted. However, they help to avoid confusion. Here are some examples that show you the correct way to use them in this instance:
“I was born on February 03, 1994.”
“Let’s figure this out on Friday, April 10.”
“The address is 18 South Tower Drive, Ocoee, FL 34761”
“The book was published on May 20, 2009.”
Using Commas With Questions
When speaking, we often make our statements into questions by attaching a little tag at the end. When writing, this is reflected by using a comma to separate the tag question from the rest of the sentence, as in these examples:
“We won’t have any problems, right?”
“Let’s take a cab, shall we?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the food, is there?”
“It’s cold outside, isn’t it?”
What Is the Oxford Comma? And How To Use It?
Have you come across the Oxford comma, sometimes called the serial comma? If you’re in the US, you’ll undoubtedly be used to seeing it and using it in every kind of text. This little fellow has caused much debate among writers and readers across the globe, with some arguing for its use, and others being dead set against it. The reason for this lies back in the distant past when British English and American English diverged along with the two nations. The British never used the Oxford comma, while the Americans grew to love it and now use it all the time—in the right circumstances, of course. Today, lots of folks who write in British English also use it, too. All this for a tiny punctuation mark!
Yet, in truth, the Oxford or serial comma is nothing to fear. These days, there’s no right or wrong with using the Oxford comma, whether you’re using British or American English, so long as you use it correctly within the context of your sentence. It’s handy when you’re making lists or using a series of, say, coordinating adjectives in a sentence, in avoiding any confusion.
So, what is it? Well, it’s simply the last comma in a list, appearing before the word “and” at the end of a series of listed words or phrases. Even if you’re writing in British English, you sometimes need that extra comma to make things clear. Have a look at the following example:
“I like chocolate, cake and gravy.”
What? Really? Cake and gravy? Together? Yuck! The Oxford comma comes to the rescue in cases like this, slipping in between “cake” and “gravy” to make sense of the whole thing:
“I like chocolate, cake, and gravy.”
As always, the main aim of a writer is to convey their meaning to the reader as clearly as possible. As you practice writing, you’ll find that you’re using more complex sentences containing many different parts, which is where punctuation comes into its own in helping you to keep your meaning clear and avoid any confusion for the reader.
Let’s finish this section with one of those long sentences so that you’ll see the comma at work separating the different parts of sentence construction:
Writing in clear language using the correct punctuation can seem a daunting task, but, by doing so, you’re ensuring a more enjoyable and, hopefully, informative experience for your readers, which they will greatly appreciate.