Commas, Colons, and Semicolons Help (page 3)
You find commas everywhere. They indicate a pause in writing, just as taking a breath is a pause in speaking. Commas are used to set apart some modifiers, phrases, and clauses, and to enhance clarity by adding a sense of pace in written materials. There are some hard and fast rules for comma placement, but usage can often be a matter of personal style. Some writers use them frequently, others do not. Just keep this in mind as you write: Too many, or too few, commas can obscure the meaning of your message. On the following pages, you'll find some basic rules about comma use.
Rule 1. Use commas to separate a series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in a sentence.
Please pick up milk, bread, and bananas from the store on your way home from work.
Shelly grabbed her coat, put it on, and ran to the bus.
However, if your series uses the words and or or to connect them, a comma is not necessary.
Red and white and blue are patriotic colors.
I cannot look at pictures of snakes or spiders or mice without anxiety.
Red, and white, and blue are patriotic colors.
I cannot look at pictures of snakes, or spiders, or mice without anxiety.
If you use two or more adjectives to describe a noun or pronoun, use a comma to separate them.
He was a happy, intelligent child.
Be careful not to put a comma between the final adjective and the word it modifies.
Rule 2. Set off an introductory word or phrase from the rest of the sentence with a comma. (See Lesson 13 for a review of phrases.)
This pause stops readers from carrying the meaning of the introduction into the main part of the sentence, which might lead to misinterpretation.
Confusing: After eating the flower shop owner and his manager tallied the day's receipts.
It seems as though someone was very hungry . . .
Less Confusing: After eating, the flower shop owner and his manager tallied the day's receipts.
Confusing: Laughing Larry tried to tell the joke but just couldn't.
What a strange name, Laughing Larry . . .
Less Confusing: Laughing, Larry tried to tell the joke but just couldn't.
A transitional phrase should also be set off by a comma if it introduces a sentence, or by two commas if it is within the sentence.
Fluke has two eyes on its left side, and is, in fact, known as summer flounder.
On the other hand, winter flounder has two eyes on its right side.
Rule 3. An appositive, a word or phrase that renames or enhances a noun, should be set off from the rest of the sentence by commas.
You, Nancy, are the winner.
Our neighbor, a well known architect, helped us draw up the plans. An experienced sailor, Marie was unconcerned about the high waves.
These appositive phrases set off by commas are nonrestrictive, or not essential; even if they are removed, the sentence will remain complete.
Rule 4. Use commas in dates, addresses, and in nonbusiness letter salutations and closings.
Use commas after the day of the week, the day of the month, and the year (only if the sentence continues):
- Our Cirque du Soleil tickets are for Wednesday, July 18, at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY.
Tip: If you are writing only the day and month or the month and year in a sentence, no comma is necessary.
The Cirque du Soleil show was on July 18.
The last time I saw a circus was in June 2007.
When writing an address on an envelope or at the head of a letter, use a comma only before an apartment number or state abbreviation.
122 Ridge Road, Apt. 10
Ulysses Junction, MN 57231
When referring to an address within a sentence, use additional commas to substitute for line breaks.
Please send the order to Marshall Grates,
122 Ridge Road, Ulysses Junction,
Notice that no commas are necessary between the state and the ZIP code.
However, when alluding to a city and state in a sentence (without the ZIP code) use a comma after the state.
I traveled through St. Louis, MO, on my way to Chicago.
The same rule applies for a city and country as well:
- Sometimes Elaine travels to Paris, France, in the fall.
Salutations and Closings
When writing a letter, use a comma after the person's name and after your closing. Note that a business letter salutation requires a colon rather than a comma.
Rule 5. Use commas before the coordinating conjunction for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so if it is followed by an independent clause.
Frank is retired, and his wife, Louise, will retire this year.
Frank is retired, yet his wife, Louise, will work for another three years.
Rule 6. Use commas before, within, and after direct quotations (the exact words someone says), whether the speaker is identified at the beginning or the end.
Drew said, "Our trip to Aruba was awesome."
"Our trip to Aruba," Drew said, "was awesome."
"Our trip to Aruba was awesome," Drew said.
Note that an indirect quote means someone is conveying what someone else said. Do not use commas to set off the speaker in an indirect quotation.
Drew said that their trip to Aruba was awesome.
Rule 7. Commas are used with titles and degrees only when they follow the person's name.
Arthur Mari, M.D.
Sandy Dugan, Ph.D.
Dr. Sandy Dugan
Rule 8. Commas are used when writing numbers longer than three digits.
In order to make a long number like 1479363072 easier to read, it is customary to place commas after group numbers into threes from right to left, dividing them into thousands, ten-thousands, hundred-thousands, and so on: 1,479,363,072.
Exceptions to this rule are phone numbers, page numbers, ZIP codes, years, serial numbers, and house numbers.
Edison, New Jersey, has five ZIP codes: 08817, 08818, 08820, 08837, and 08899.
As in any other series, commas should be placed between whole numbers in a series of numbers.
Refer to pages 466, 467, and 468 in the phone book to find information on ZIP codes.
Tip: Read each sentence you write aloud to see where you would naturally pause to take a breath before the end. That is where you may need to put a comma.
Colons are used to introduce a word, a sentence, a list, a quotation, or a phrase. They say "here is an example" or "an example is going to follow."
On your first day of the art workshop, please bring the following items to room 601 of Larsson Hall: a charcoal pencil, two paintbrushes, a drawing pad, and your creativity.
Do not use a colon when introducing a list if the colon follows a preposition or a verb.
On your first day of the art workshop, please bring: a charcoal pencil, two paintbrushes, a drawing pad, and your creativity to: room 601 of Larsson Hall.
A colon can also introduce an excerpt or long quotation in your writing
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), diplomat, politician, physicist, writer, and inventor is quoted as saying: "All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse."
and set off the subtitle of a movie or book.
Phenomenal Women: Four Poems Celebrating Women is written by Maya Angelou, one of America's finest female poets.
Jimmy has watched Barnyard: The Original Party four times this weekend.
Lastly, colons are used to separate the hour from minutes in written time,
The next bus for New York City leaves at 10:20 a.m.
and between numbers when citing the volume and pages of books and magazines.
- Please refer to Volume 3: pages 4–9 for further information.
Also called the "super comma," the semicolon is used to link two topic-related independent clauses (sentences) when a coordinating conjunction is not used.
Steven's sister, Haley, is short.
Steven is tall.
Steven's sister, Haley, is short; Steven is tall.
Use a semicolon between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) only when commas are also used in the sentence.
Tip: Remember, whatever follows a semicolon has to be able to stand on its own as a complete sentence.
Because Haley is 6'2"tall, she is taller than most people; but she is the shortest sibling in her family.
Use a semicolon between two independent clauses separated by a transitional word or phrase or by a conjunctive adverb.
At 6'8", Steven is tall; therefore, even at 6'2", Steven's sister, Haley, is short in her family.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Commas, Colons, and Semicolons Practice.
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