How to Use a Comma

by sheilamarie

Commas and how to use them turn some people in knots. Yet when used correctly, commas make the difference between text that is easy to read and text that makes no sense.

Do you know when to use a comma in your writing?

Have you sometimes misunderstood an article you've read online because a comma was either inserted in the wrong place or left out where it was needed?

You are not alone. Many people struggle with how to use commas in their writing.

When writing online, many people dismiss punctuation as unimportant in getting their message across, but rules of grammar, including how to use commas, only exist as a way to help the reader understand what the writer is trying to communicate. Language is all about communication, isn't it?

Read on for advice and tips to bring more clarity to your writing.

Why Do We Need Commas?

Punctuation Out the Window

Punctuation is all about communicating well. Of course, most people have little trouble with end punctuation. Whether our voice goes up or down at the end of a sentence lets us know whether a question mark or a period is appropriate. An exclamation point follows a sentence that expresses a certain energy. 

Commas, however, are a different story. Many people get nervous about how to use a comma, so the current trend is to leave commas out altogether. But when a writer leaves out commas, as is done in a lot of online writing, the pacing of a sentence is changed. Sometimes the meaning is changed, too, from what the writer intended to say. This can cause confusion. It can also make an article difficult to read, and frustrated readers are quick to leave your webpage.

This in itself is reason enough to refresh your memory on when to insert a comma and when to leave it out. 

Have You Mastered How to Use a Comma?

Or Does Punctuation Drive You Insane?

I can never figure out where a comma should go!
Guest on 05/03/2012

I'm pretty good, but wouldn't say I've mastered it yet.

Jerrico_Usher on 05/02/2012

LOL I have to say this is one of my weaknesses. I used to use the rule, if you pause in your head when your typing or saying the sentence back to yourself, the comma should be there. Then I realized that too many commas can become a run on sentence or borderline run on. I'm glad you wrote this because it's a bit boggling really. I'm also running into "It's" and "Its" as I just discovered even if it sounds like "It Is" it doesn't necessarily have an apostrophe!

socialsocial on 04/29/2012

me too, still trying to figure where those comma's go. great article, I've learned a lot.

CorreenK on 04/27/2012

I have always doubted my addition of commas when I write. I know what "sounds" good to me might not always be proper or accepted.

katiem2 on 04/27/2012

I go about it and it seems natural and then doubt comes into play.

samsara on 04/27/2012

I always struggle when it comes to commas.

I feel confident in my use of the comma.
BrendaReeves on 09/01/2012

I go by the rules of grammar and think I'm pretty good at it but probably not perfect.

Punctuation Saves Live?

Comma Omitted Can Be Disastrous

When Do You Use a Comma?

Where to Put That Squiggly Comma
  • Basically, a comma tells the reader to pause. 
  • When you connect two independent clauses with "and," "or," or "but," add a comma before the connecting word: It's raining cats and dogs today, and I left my umbrella at home.  "It's raining cats and dogs today" can stand alone as a sentence by putting a period at the end. The same is true of "I left my umbrella at home." To connect the two complete thoughts, you need to add a comma and the conjunction, or connecting word, and.
  • A comma follows most beginning subordinate clauses just before the main, or independent, clause begins: When I go for a walk in the dark, I bring along my flashlight. 
  • When a long prepositional phrase begins a sentence, it is followed by a comma: During the long, cold nights of a Canadian winter, we huddle by the fire and read a good book. 
  • This last example also demonstrates the way we separate some adjectives that appear together. The rule is if you can insert the word and between the two adjectives, you can use the comma. 
  • A comma precedes and follows a person's name when you are addressing him or her: Barry, would you like a cup of tea?
  • Commas appear on both sides of a word or a phrase that can be taken out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. For example, if I tell you that “my friend Beth followed me into the room,” I only use commas before and after “Beth” if Beth is my only friend. If I have more than one friend, I leave out the commas because the name “Beth” is important information in the sentence; it tells which friend I am talking about. If Beth is my only friend, however, then the name is implied in the word “friend,” and so commas are added before and after her name. If I were to delete her name, the meaning would still be clear. 
  • Words such as "however," "of course," "therefore," etc., are also preceded and followed by commas for the same reason. They are referred to as "parenthetical" or "an interrupting element." If you were to take them right out of the sentence, they wouldn't change the meaning.
  • Another way this concept may come up is if you use a nonrestrictive phrase or clause to describe something or someone: The girls, who had always loved to jump rope, spent the afternoon memorizing jump rope songs. Put commas before and after the describing phrase or clause. On the other hand, if the clause or phrase is necessary to distinguish these girls from some other girls, you leave the commas out: The girls who loved to jump rope invited the girls who had never tried it to join them. No commas are added because the information is needed for the sentence to make sense.
  • Use a comma to separate words in a series: I like the colors blue, green, and purple. Some people prefer to leave out the comma before the “and.” I tend to add it, as it prevents confusion. (Is it the combination of green and purple that I like or each color on its own?)
  • You need a comma between a city and a state or province when you use them in a sentence: I used to live in Pomfret, Vermont.
  • Add a comma between the date and the year: Today is April 26, 2012.
  • Use a comma to set off a title or degree: The lecture was delivered by Laura Montague, Ph.D., at Collins Hall.

The meaning of a sentence can become fuzzy when commas are either added when they are unnecessary or left out when they are called for, as was demonstrated by the author of the following book. She added an extra comma in the title of her grammar book to demonstrate the kinds of confusion that can result when such a small curlicue is misused. Look carefully at the illustration on the cover if you have any confusion about why that title is funny.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A Punctuation Book Whose Title Demonstrates the Problem
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
$19.95  $2.75

The Illustrated Eats, Shoots & Leaves

by Lynne Truss

I like this version of Lynne Truss's book even better. The illustrations add to the hilarity of her approach. She is unapologetically British in her references and in the rules she explains. The U.S. grammar rules are slightly different in some cases.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves Illustrated Edition

Such a small thing as a comma can really bother some people.

Others could care less. How do you feel about commas?

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First: Writing Is a Craft to Be Mastered
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (UPDATED 2011 EDITION) The All-Time Bestselling Book on Writing English ...

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Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (3rd Edition)

This bestselling brief text is for anyone who needs tips to improve writing. Writing with Style is storehouse of practical writing tips—written in a lively, conversational ...

$54.80  $17.95
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation

"Takes the straitjacket off punctuation....Lukeman's wit and insight make this an instant classic."—M. J. RoseThe first practical and accessible guide to the art of ...

$14.95  $5.00

A Final Word on Commas

Commas Can Be Tricky

Unfortunately, even after learning what the "rules" are for commas, some people find using them tricky. There are cases where you should not use a comma that on first look resemble places where commas are recommended.

There are other places where commas are optional, depending on the style of the writer.

I've an upcoming article on these cases to show what I mean.

And, as I said at the beginning of this article, many people who write online have dispensed with comma use altogether, possibly because they are writing quickly and can't be bothered to go over their work with the eye of an editor.

Because punctuation is a convention that has been agreed upon and carefully taught as a way to ensure our communication is clear, however, I think we should at least try to be more careful how we use it.

I'm sure you'll agree with me when I say that miscommunication has often been the culprit for family feuds and even wars. On a more mundane level, I know I have at times purchased something that I thought was supposed to be one thing and found out later that I'd misunderstood what I'd read on the label.

Kids can be funny at how they misinterpret what they think they hear the adults say.

Older people (like Mr. Magoo) can get funny ideas when they mishear conversations, too.

These examples can be funny, but they can also sometimes be tragic.  As writers, we are responsible for the words we use and how we get our messages across. Punctuation is one way we can be sure that what people read is indeed what we were trying to convey. That's why people started to use agreed upon punctuation in the first place.

Maybe the world is changing so fast that the language is changing with it, and we will one day no longer share these rules of punctuation. I hope, however, that the goal of clear communication is not swept away with the discarded rules.

How to Use Apostrophes

Another Punctuation Dilemma
Apostrophes have been called commas on a high. Some of us act a bit tipsy when we are faced with them in our writing.

Here's a Great Wizzle on Frequent Grammar Mistakes We All Make

Speed Demon Fingers--Watch Out!

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Updated: 08/17/2013, sheilamarie
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Please Leave Your Comments.

BrendaReeves on 09/01/2012

If you know your grammar rules, it's easy. Nice review Sheila.

sheilamarie on 05/06/2012

Thanks for your kind comments, WiseFool. (I love that name!) We all make the occasional mistake. That's why it's useful to review the rules now and then and to check our work.

When we're in the thick of writing, we're thinking more of what we want to say, but after we've finished our draft, it's a good idea to look it over for mistakes. I used to tell students to read a piece of writing over more than once, focusing each time on a different aspect, such as spelling or punctuation or word usage.

On the internet, we're all in such a hurry that we often don't take the time. However, sometimes it looks as if we haven't read over our draft at all before we publish it for all the world to see. If we realize that real human beings are reading what we write, though, we may consider them enough to clean up our writing as a matter of respect for the reader.

Although many people are very forgiving of mistakes they read online, I think many more do feel irritated by blatant mistakes. These mistakes can come across as a sign that the writer doesn't really care about the reader, or doesn't care enough to make the reading as pleasant as possible.

WiseFool on 05/05/2012

Thanks, Sheila for all this wonderfully useful info. I loved 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves' when I read it about...ohhh, six years ago. Still don't always get my comma placement right, though.

sheilamarie on 05/03/2012

Thanks so much, bolillie!

Guest on 05/03/2012

I adore the book "Eats, Shoots & Leaves!" I'm going to look through some of your articles and link to them on my homeschooling and writing blogs. Good stuff!

sheilamarie on 04/28/2012

Funny, Wendy, but apostrophes are my next article. It's almost ready to be published!
Thanks so much for all your kind comments. We all make these little mistakes, especially when we write online for some reason. It's helpful to be reminded now and then on what the grammar rules are.

Guest on 04/28/2012

Great article. Commas are often punctuation that people overlook I think -- this is a much needed guide. Apostrophe misuse annoys me more as that's so much easier to work out!

CorreenK on 04/27/2012

My high school English teacher would have benefited from this article, because I never got her approach to teaching commas. (Eeegads hope I did that comma right :)

katiem2 on 04/27/2012

Thank you for this, I have not yet read anything so helpful when it comes to the use of comma's. I will def improve my correct comma usage now. I'll be back...

samsara on 04/27/2012

This is one article I will be returning to. I am terrified of commas to be honest :).

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