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How to Use Commas Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 22, 2011

How to Use Commas

The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood for the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.

EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809–1849)

AMERICAN POET

In this lesson, we will look at how commas are used in sentences. Knowing where and when commas are appropriate is essential.

Commas Within A Sentence

A comma is an internal punctuation mark (endmarks are external) that tell the reader when to pause. By setting apart some words, phrases, and clauses, commas add clarity to the sentence. There are several basic rules for comma placement. If you follow them, you will not risk having too many or too few commas, either of which could leave your readers confused.

Rule 1: Use commas to separate words, phrases, or clauses in a series.

Red, green, and blue are the only colors left to choose from.
Jamie untied the bow, opened the box, and peeked inside.

If your series uses the words and or or to connect them, then commas are not necessary.

Red or green or blue are the only colors left to choose from.
Jamie untied the bow and opened the box and peeked inside.

Rule 2: Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that are describing a noun or pronoun in the same way. If you can put and between them, or reverse them, and the sentence remains logical, a comma belongs between the words.

Incorrect: The little, old lady sat with her cat on the porch.
Test 1: The little and old lady sat with her cat on the porch
Test 2: The old, little lady sat with her cat on the porch.
Correct: Put the short, stubby bushes on the side of the tall ones
Test 1: Put the short and stubby bushes on the side of the tall ones.
Test 2: Put the stubby, short bushes on the side of the tall ones.

Rule 3: Use a comma to set off an introductory word or phrase from the rest of the sentence.

Without a comma, your reader could mistakenly carry the meaning of the introduction into the main part of the sentence.

  Confusing: While they ate the students talked about their plans for the weekend.
  Less Confusing: While they ate, the students talked about their plans for the weekend.

Rule 4: Use commas to set off an appositive, a word or phrase that renames or identifies the noun or pronoun preceding it.

Our neighbors, the Dixons, traveled to Yellowstone National Park for vacation this summer.

Rule 5: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) that is followed by an independent clause.

Fried chicken is delicious, but it is also fattening.

Rule 6: Use commas when writing dialogue.

For a direct quotation that identifies the speaker first, place the comma outside the opening quotation marks, after the opening phrase.

Vera replied, "It is nice to meet you, too."

For a direct quotation with an interrupter, place one comma after the first portion of the quoted sentence and another comma after the interrupter words.

"I think," Vera continued, "that we have met before."

Note that commas are not used when an indirect quotation states what someone said, but not exactly in the same words.

Vera said that she thought they had met before.

An exercise for this concept can be found at How to Use Commas Practice Exercise.

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