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PUNCTUATION > Apostrophe > Colon > Comma > Dash > Exclamation > Parenthesis > Period > Questionmark > Quotations > Semicolon

Punctuation marks: How to use the COMMA


How to use the COMMA Using the the comma ( , ) is the most difficult of all the punctuation marks. Usage varies greatly in different types of writing. Equally good writers and proofreaders also question the use of the comma in certain passages of writing. The English language has certain general rules governing the proper use of the comma. Many cases, however, will arise in which you will interpret the rules differently or use the comma differently based on style guides like APA Style and MLA Style.

The comma is the least degree of separation. Its business is to define the particles and minor clauses of a sentence. When we look back to the last century and fast forward to present day, we can see that writers favor the semicolon more than the comma in wordy sentences. Today's writers favor simplicity of expression. They write clear and simple English. They have completely abandoned the old style of ornate writing which involved a good deal of punctuation to make it intelligible. A simple and direct writing style needs very little help--and little punctuation.

The change in writing styles over the last century and the attitude of writers wanting to simplify writing account for the difference in usage of the comma and difficulty in fixing rules to cover all cases. The present attitude toward punctuation, especially the use of the comma, is one of dislike. The writer is always accountable to explain the presence of a comma rather than its absence. Nevertheless, it is possible to go too far in removing commas in ordinary writing. It is possible to create sentences in such a way as to avoid the comma. The result is a harsh and awkward style, unwarranted by any necessity. Ordinary writing needs the companionship of commas to indicate the sense and to prevent ambiguity.

Always remember that the primary use of the comma is to help bring forth the meaning of the words and prevent ambiguity. A correct use of the comma shows clearly the separation and connection of words and phrases. If you think your readers might misunderstand your sentence without a comma, then put one in. If the words tell their story clearly, without misunderstanding, then leave it out. This rule is dependable in the absence of any recognized rule for a particular case, or where doubt exists as to the application of a rule.

1) Use a comma after each adjective or adverb in a series of two or more when not connected by conjunctions.

EX.— He was a tall, thin, dark man.

The rule holds when the last member of the series is preceded by a conjunction.

EX.— He was tall, thin, and dark.

You can omit the comma if you combine words into a single idea.

EX.— A still humid day.
EX.— An old red sock.

2) Use a comma after each pair in a series of pairs of words or phrases not connected by conjunctions.

EX.— Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote.

EX.— Formerly the boss, his co-workers, even his apprentices, all worked in the same building.

3) Use a comma to separate contrasted words.

EX.— We rule by love, not by hate.

4) Use a comma between two independent clauses connected by a conjunction.

EX.— The papers were out of order, but we managed to find the bank statement.

5) Use a comma before a conjunction when the word which preceded it is qualified by an expression.

EX.—He quickly looked up, and spoke.

6) Use a comma between relative clauses which explain the antecedent, or which introduce a new thought.

EX.— The screwdriver, which was badly worn, could not tighten the screw.

6b) If the relative clause limits the meaning of the antecedent, but does not explain it and does not add a new thought, then omit the comma.

EX.— He only worked the amount of hours which he was told to do.

7) Use a comma to separate parenthetical or intermediate expressions from the context.

EX.— My new business, you may be glad to know, is very successful this year.

EX.— The books, which I have read, were returned to the library.

EX.— He was pleased, I suppose, with his work.

7b) If the connection of such expressions is so close as to form one connected idea, then omit the comma.

EX.—The computer nearest the south hallway is broken.

7c) If the connection of such expressions is remote, you might decide to use parentheses.

EX.— The Tennis Committee (appointed under vote of April 10, 2012) organized and proceeded with the next exhibition match.

8) Use a comma to separate the coordinate clauses of compound sentences if such clauses are simple and closely related.

EX.— He was kind, not indulgent, to his friends; firm, but just, in discipline; courteous, but not familiar, to all.

9) Use a comma to separate quotations, or similar brief expressions from the preceding part of the sentence.

EX.— Caesar reported to the Senate, "I came, I saw, I conquered."

EX.— The question is, "What should we do next?"

10) Use a comma to indicate the omission of the verb in compound sentences having a common verb in several clauses.

EX.—One man glories in his strength, another in his wealth, another in his learning.

11) Use a comma to separate phrases containing the case absolute from the rest of the sentence.

EX.— The form having been locked up, a proof was taken.

12. Use a comma between words or phrases in disagreement to each other.

The comma is omitted when such a disagreement is used as a single phrase or a compound name.

EX.— The poet Longfellow was born in Portland.
EX.— The word patriotic is now in extensive use.

13) Use a comma after phrases and clauses which you place at the beginning of a sentence by inversion.

EX.— Worn out by hard wear, the type at last became unfit for use.

EX.— Ever since, he has had an appetite for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

EX.—After the general plan has been approved by the committee, it will be time to discuss the details.

EX.— We found them at the entrance of the subway station, waiting for us to come.

13b) Omit the comma if you use a short phrase.

EX.— Of success there could be no doubt.

14) Use a comma to separate introductory phrases beginning with if, and, but, nor, when, wherever, whenever, and the like, even when the statement may appear to be direct.

EX.— When your e-mail has not been answered, it is best to follow up with a phone call.

EX.— If your thesis paper is hard to read, the professor might grade it lower.

15) Use a comma to separate introductory words and phrases and independent adverbs from the rest of the sentence.

EX.—Now, what are you going to do there?

EX.— I think, also, Scott owed much of his success to his strong common sense.

EX.— This idea, however, had already been patented by your competitors.

15b) Do not use the comma when these adverbs are used in the ordinary way.

EX.— They also serve who only stand and wait.
EX.— This must be done, however contrary to their demands.

16) Use a comma to separate words or phrases of direct address from the context.

EX.— I submit, gentlemen, to your judgment.

EX.— From today, my son, your future is in your own hands.

17) Use a comma between the name of a person and his title or degree.

EX.— Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.
EX.— Brian W. Elliot, Ph.D.
EX.— Jordan A. Williams, Esq.

18) Use a comma before the word of connecting a proper name with residence or position.

EX.— Senator Lodge, of Massachusetts.

EX.— Elia B. Trump, Senator from New York.

19) Use a comma after an informal salutatory phrase at the beginning of a letter.

EX.—Dear John,

19b) When the salutation is formal, use a colon instead.

EX.—Dear Mr. John Smith:


20) Use a comma to separate two numbers.

EX.— January 31, 2012.

EX.— By the end of 2009, they had built 762 homes.

21) Use a comma to indicate an ellipsis.

EX.— Subscription for the magazine, five dollars.

21b) Exceptions to this rule are made in very brief sentences, especially in advertisements:

EX.— Tickets 75 cents.
EX.— Price two dollars.

22) In numeration, commas are used to express periods of three figures.

EX.—Mountains 25,000 feet high
EX.—1,000,000 dollars.


Sometimes you may have to slightly alter or break the above rules in certain situations. Use the following six principles to guide you:

1) The comma is used to separate for the eye what is separate in thought.

2) The comma is not intended to break the content up into lengths suited to the breath of one reading aloud.

3) The comma is not an aesthetic device to improve the appearance of the line.

4) The sole purpose of the comma is to unfold the sense of the words.

5) The comma cannot be correctly used without a thorough understanding of the sense of the words.

6) When in doubt, leave it out.

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PUNCTUATION > Apostrophe > Colon > Comma > Dash > Exclamation > Parenthesis > Period > Questionmark > Quotations > Semicolon