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What does a comma do, exactly? Comma use in the modern age

commaexampleBy Allison VanNest, Grammarly.com

One of the most common punctuation marks in the English language is the comma. It can also be the most complicated. Some writers add commas to their text frequently to show readers where to naturally pause, while others simply write and write and write and write until they come to the end of a sentence—no punctuation necessary.

As freelance writers, how do we know when to use the comma and when to just write . . . uninterrupted? Here are some common use cases for the comma:

Separates items in a series

Commas separate items in a series of more than two. Although there is an ongoing debate about the Oxford Comma—the optional comma before and, or, or nor at the end of a list—Grammarly is a strong proponent of including the comma to avoid confusion.

We took books, food, drinks, and sunscreen to the beach.

There are times, however, when the last item in a list is a unit, in which case the comma is inserted before the “and” that precedes the unit.

We took books, food, drinks, sunscreen, and Rita and her kids to the beach.

Separates independent clauses Commas, along with FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), are used to separate independent clauses—clauses that can stand alone as sentences.

We brought books, food, drinks, and sunscreen to the beach, but Rita brought only her kids and a whip and chair.

Commas are used after a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, although, moreover, nevertheless) to separate two independent clauses. Note that there’s a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb.

I did have my books; however, I wished I also had a whip and chair.

Separates a dependent clause from an independent clause

\Commas are used to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause if the dependent clause comes before the independent clause in the sentence. If the independent clause precedes the dependent clause, there is usually no need for a comma.

Although Rita brought a whip and chair to the beach, her kids didn’t behave.

Her kids didn’t behave although Rita brought a whip and chair to the beach.

Subordinating conjunctions—when, because, after, although, while, to name a few—are the connecting words between the independent and dependent clauses. They help to provide a clean transition between the ideas represented by the independent and dependent clauses.

Replaces parentheses

Commas are also used to set off parenthetical or non-restrictive parts of a sentence. Parenthetical or non-restrictive phrases add information to a sentence, but are not necessary to understanding the sentence as a whole.

Rita has to use a whip and chair to control her two kids, Sam and Bernard.

This sentence is readily understandable if Sam and Bernard are her only children. However, if Sam and Bernard are not her only children, an explanation—essential to the meaning of the sentence and not separated with commas—should be inserted.

Rita has to use a whip and chair to control her kids Sam and Bernard.

Clarifies city-state references

Another parenthetical element always set off with commas is the name of a state following the name of a city. If the city-state combination is possessive, however, there is no comma following the name of the state. This also applies if the location is a city and country.

The Department of Human Services of Memphis, Tennessee, must not be aware that Rita uses a whip and chair to control Sam and Bernard.


Memphis, Tennessee’s Department of Human Services must not be aware that Rita uses a whip and chair to control Sam and Bernard.

Clarifies dates

Punctuating dates is similar to punctuating city-state references in that the year is parenthetical if the day is used.

November 12, 2009, was the date Rita first began using a whip and chair to control Sam and Bernard.

Without a specific day, there is no need for a comma.

It was in November 2009 that Rita first began using a whip and chair to control Sam and Bernard.

Replaces interjections!

Commas are used to set off interjections, as well as the names of persons being directly addressed. If the interjection is strong, an exclamation point is often substituted for the comma.

Hey! Sam, stop hitting Bernard with the chair!

Sets off coordinating adjectives

Use a comma to set off coordinating adjectives, adjectives that “line up” to modify a noun.

Rita tried to use the cracked, broken chair but finally had to resort to the whip alone.

If the word “and” can be inserted between the adjectives and the sentence still sounds “right,” a comma probably needs to be inserted between the adjectives. In the above example, one can say “the cracked and broken chair.” However, if individual adjectives cannot be used alone with a noun without sounding nonsensical, or changing the meaning of the sentence, no comma should separate them.

Rita tried using a new chair, but Sam called it “that little old chair” and started laughing.

Makes way for quotations

Use commas to set off quotes.

Rita said, “Sam, if you don’t stop laughing, I’ll use the broken chair with the whip!”

If the word “that” is used before the quote, no comma is necessary.

Rita said that Sam “wouldn’t quit laughing at my chair.”

The above are the most common uses of commas. There aren’t that many, and they’re not hard, right? Wrong.

Writing experts differ on some of the rules above, and different writing styles call for different comma usage. Furthermore, writers often “break the rules” for clarity or contrast. In almost every case above, there are times in your writing when you will decide to throw caution to the wind and insert or remove a comma in an unapproved fashion—or substitute another kind of punctuation for the comma. And the world will not end.

As Oscar Wilde said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” Since the English language is constantly changing, using commas correctly can be tricky, time-consuming, and just plain wrong, depending on whom you talk to, of course. The best advice is to aim for consistency. At least you’ll be right . . . some of the time.

Are you wondering what happened to our dysfunctional family? Sam ran away to the circus to work on the other side of the whip and chair while Bernard joined a commune where all members worked as a unit to parent the children. Rita’s on a secluded beach sipping a drink and laughing as, one by one, she reads and then tosses letters from the Department of Human Services into the sea.

About the Author

A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than 640,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by mrsdkrebs

Your turn: What’s your favorite use or misuse of the comma?

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