Commas

1. What is a Comma?

A comma (,) is a punctuation mark that is frequently used in sentences. Commas separate ideas, add pauses, and help you to list things clearly. They also let us connect words, phrases, and clauses together to make longer sentences. In fact, the comma is one of the most important and commonly used types of punctuation. Without them, sentences would just be messy!

 

2. Examples of Comma Use

Almost all sentences that aren’t a single independent clause have commas. Here are some examples of the ways we use them:

  • The pet store has cats, dogs, hamsters, fish, and turtles.      Listing things
  • I really wanted cereal this morning, but I didn’t have any milk.      Connecting clauses
  • Well, if you really want pancakes, I guess I can make them.      Creating pauses

 

3. Basic Rules for Commas

There are a lot of ways to use commas in English, and sometimes they can be tricky. But, most of the time, it’s easy to tell where you need a comma, because it just sounds right! Here are ten basic rules and situations about comma use:

a. Use a comma any time you combine two independent clauses with any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, but, so, for, or, nor, yet):

  • I can’t go to the dance, but you should go without me.
  • I need to buy a dress, so I am going to the mall.

b. In most cases, don’t use a comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause:

  • Correct: I lost my cellphone while I was at the dance.
  • Incorrect: I lost my cellphone, while I was at the dance.

 

  • Correct: The dance was fun once my boyfriend arrived.
  • Incorrect: The dance was fun, once my boyfriend arrived.

Only sometimes, when you are showing a big contrast between two things, you can use a comma between an independent and dependent clause:

  • Sally had a terrible time at the dance, even though she was elected prom queen.
  • Sally was having great time at the dance, until she found out she wasn’t prom queen.

In these two sentences it’s okay to use a comma because they show a big contrast.

c. Use a comma when a dependent clause is followed by an independent clause:

  • If you go to the dance, don’t forget to bring your cellphone.
  • When you are walking to the dance, be careful not to break your high heels!

d. Use a comma when you start a sentence with a word or phrase that introduces it, like this:

  • After the dance, we should go out to a late-night diner
  • Yesterday afternoon, I went to the mall to buy a dress for the dance.

e. Use two commas in the middle of sentence to separate out information that isn’t essential to sentence’s meaning, but only provides extra details. One comma goes after the first part, and one goes after the second, like this:

  • The dance, held in the school gym, ended at midnight.
  • My dress, which was handmade, was perfect for the dance.

f. Use commas when you are listing three or more things (words, phrases or clauses). Look at these sentences:

  • Correct: I drove to the dance with Sally, Sam, and Tom.      Correct comma use
  • Incorrect: I drove to the dance with Sally Sam and Tom.      Missing commas

We need to use commas here to separate the names, making it clear that they are three separate people. With three or more things, you ALWAYS need to use commas, otherwise your sentence will be confusing.

g. Don’t use commas when you are listing less than three things:

  • Correct: I drove to the dance with Sally and Sam.      No commas necessary
  • Incorrect: I drove to the dance with Sally, and Sam.      Incorrect comma use

You can see that a comma isn’t necessary here. It isn’t correct to use a comma when you only have two or more things.

h. Use commas when you have more than one adjective in a row describing something:

  • Correct: My dress was blue, sparkly, and long.
  • Incorrect: My dress was blue sparkly and long.

But, do not use a comma directly between the last adjective and the noun it is describing:

  • Correct: The long, sparkly dress was perfect for the dance.
  • Incorrect: The long, sparkly, dress was perfect for the dance.

i. Don’t use commas in “that” clauses; restrictive clauses with word combinations like “_____ that _______.”

  • Correct: The dress that Sally bought for the dance is blue.
  • Incorrect: The dress, that Sally bought for the dance, is blue
  • Correct: The girl that wins prom queen will get a gold crown.
  • Incorrect: The girl, that wins prom queen, will get a gold crown.

It may be tempting, but do not use a comma after “that” in sentences like this!

j. Finally, you should use commas when you simply need a pause in a sentence:

  • Hello, how are you?
  • Sally, don’t forget to bring your cellphone to the dance.
  • Well, I don’t like dances, but I guess I will go.
  • Look over there, that girl in the blue dress is Sally.

 

4. How to Avoid Mistakes

A good general thing to think about when it comes to commas is that if using one will make your sentence clearer or less confusing, you should do it. When you are using a comma, remember it means “pause,” so try reading your sentence out loud to see if you are pausing at the right time. For example, if you read this sentence aloud:

  • The rabbit, hopped, and then, he ate, a carrot.

You can hear that the pauses come at the wrong times in this sentence. So, that means we need to move the commas:

  • The rabbit hopped, and then he ate a carrot.

You could add one more comma to this sentence, but it isn’t required:

  • The rabbit hopped, and then, he ate a carrot.

Furthermore, there are two other specific mistakes that happen with commas: comma splices and run-on sentences.

a. Comma Splice

A comma splice happens when you connect two independent clauses with only a comma, and not a conjunction:

  • I can’t go to the dance, you should go without me.      Comma splice

In English, this is a grammar error. It isn’t the proper way to separate these two complete ideas. When connecting two ideas like this, you either need to add a conjunction, or replace the comma with a semicolon (;):

  • I can’t go to the dance, but you should go without me.
  • I can’t go to the dance; you should go without me.

b. Run-on Sentence

A run-on sentence is similar to a comma splice because it also happens when you combine two independent clauses but don’t use proper punctuation or conjunctions:

  • I can’t go to the dance you should go without me.
  • I need to buy a dress I am going to the mall.

To fix these run on sentences, we have a few choices. The easiest is to add a comma and a conjunction:

  • I can’t go to the dance, but you should go without me.
  • I need to buy a dress, so I am going to the mall.

Or, we can separate them into two sentences (but one compound sentence is stronger):

  • I can’t go to the dance. You should go without me.
  • I need to buy a dress. I am going to the mall.

Test your Knowledge

1.
Add a comma (or commas) to fix this sentence:

Last summer I went to France Italy Germany and Spain.

a.

b.

c.

2.
TRUE or FALSE: A run-on sentence is a sentence with too many commas.

a.

b.

3.
Add a comma (or commas) to fix this sentence:

I really want to eat pizza so I am going to the pizzeria to get a slice.

a.

b.

c.

4.
TRUE or FALSE: Most sentences (that aren’t a single independent clause) use commas.

a.

b.

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