I think misusing and forgetting commas is up there on the list of most frequent abuses of the written language. As for putting commas in the wrong place, well, that’s a combination of changing styles in writing and, ahem, ignorance.
I know grammarians say that the “if you pause or take a breath, then you should add a comma rule” is one of those fake grammar rules instilled by our English teachers, but I disagree. I believe it’s a good indicator that you should — at LEAST — explore it and figure out if it does need that comma. I usually find that if I stumble or have to re-read a sentence, it’s because of a missing comma!
The most critical method of assessing if a comma is needed is asking yourself if the phrase or clause is essential or nonessential…
Essential or Nonessential, That is the Question
Don’cha just love it… The who and the what? Whaddya mean essential or nonessential? What’s worse is that there are other names to describe such comma usage…the restrictive or nonrestrictive, the defining or nondefining. It’s enough to drive one mad and screaming down the hallllll…
Seriously, the essential/restrictive applies to a variety of grammatical and punctuation issues, so it behooves you to know the difference between the two states.
Essential means that the information is necessary, it restricts the vast number of possibilities to just the one (or few). And you don’t use a comma!
The nonessential/nonrestrictive is information that is unnecessary. There is no need for the information to be included as it is obvious who or what is meant. The commas set the nonessential aside, allowing the reader to understand that it’s just an extra bit of data.
Other Comma Situations
There can be other situations in which a comma could be required. You may want to explore the posts on the clauses: conditional, dependent, elliptical, introductory, and relative; the “Abbreviations: E.g., Et al., Etc., and I.e.,“; the phrases absolute and transitive (an upcoming post); the “Appositive“; the “As“; the “Conjunction“; the “Identifier“; the “Interjection“; the “Interrupter“; or, the “Parenthetical Elements“.
As a footnote, even if British style does not require the serial comma, neither does it forbid the serial comma. Thus, the comma can be retained wherever you feel that it adds clarity. The main virtue of using the serial comma from an editorial perspective? It’s never wrong, and it’s far easier to learn to just use the damned thing everywhere than it is to have to decide in each case whether it’s necessary. Save your brain for more important work.
The Properly Punctuated explores…
…the proper use of quotation marks, commas, semicolons, colons, ellipsis, etc., including how to properly mark dialog, ahem. As Properly Punctuated is in no way complete, I would appreciate suggestions and comments from anyone…
If you’d like to track it, bookmark this page — and consider sharing this Properly Punctuated tidbit with friends by tweeting it.
|Credit to: Textbroker.com; Purdue OWL; Capital Community College Guide to Grammar & Writing|
|General Rule: Wherever needed to prevent confusion or misreading.|
|KNOW the Difference Between Essential & Nonessential|
|Rule: Information crucial to the sentence should not be set apart.|
|Brandon Sanderson’s latest book A Memory of Light has finally been published.
There are no dates and Sanderson is prolific, so it’s essential to know which “latest book” is being referred to.
My boyfriend Devon and I went to the movies.
“Devon” is essential information; it might have been Jim who took me to the movies! Especially since my boyfriend George took me to lunch while my boyfriend Dale took me to dinner the night before.
The juniors who made the baseball team were happy.
Lee who was born in Michigan ate a cupcake.
Willie taking a look at the weather decided to stay home.
The girls participating in the show need to show up by 6:00.
|Rule: Separate information not crucial to the message or intent of the sentence from the sentence, i.e., will the sentence be understandable without that clause.|
|A Memory of Light, Brandon Sanderson’s latest publication, is the last in the Wheel of Time series.
The sentence is about the last title in this series with it being Sanderson’s latest nonessential information.
My boyfriend, Devon, and I went to the movies.
“I” only has one boyfriend. Because she only has one boyfriend, it’s obvious who is meant, so “Devon” is considered nonessential information.
|Serial Comma||Rule: The serial comma should be used with items in a simple series; always use a
,at the end of the word preceding the
nor, or the
APA requires the serial comma.
A.k.a., Oxford comma, serial comma, Harvard comma, series comma.
I bought bacon, eggs, and juice at the grocery store.
We were trying to decide between going out dancing, the movies, or playing cards with friends.
Mary, Joe, and George met up after class.
I almost forgot to pick up the bananas, walnuts, and mayonnaise I’ll need for the salad.
The business side of being an artist requires one to be concerned with marketing one’s artwork, recording expenses and income, and tracking existing and potential clients.
|There is controversy over using the serial comma—I had grown up having been taught that one never used a comma between the second-to-the-last-word and and, so it was difficult for me to change! And, I have read too many instances in which I have been confused as to whether the xx and xx were simply part of a list or if they were a conjoined pair indicating one thing. It’s enough to make me a proponent of the serial comma!
Read up more on its history with any of the following.
These are in favor of it: AMA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, CSE, MLA, Oxford Style Manual, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, GPO.
These are not: AP, Australian Government’s Style Manual, British usage, Cambridge Guide to English, newspapers, University of Oxford Writing & Style Guide.
|Helen, Joe and Mary are coming too.
Someone is talking to Helen and telling her that Joe and Mary are coming as well.
Helen, Joe, and Mary are coming too.
All three of them are coming.
Helen and Joe and Mary are coming too.
All three of them are coming…again, lol.
The new T-shirts come in the following colors: red, blue and white, yellow, and pink and purple.
Sounds like I can get a T-shirt in red. Or blue-and-white. Or yellow. Or pink-and-purple.
Then again, maybe the sentence meant to say:
I can get the shirt in red, blue, white, yellow, pink, or purple??
|Exceptions to the Serial||Rule: Certain word combinations are so closely related that you wouldn’t consider saying one without the other. That means you don’t use a comma to separate them either. Not if you are using that phrase in the accepted combination.|
|bread and butter
law and order
peanut butter and jelly
|For lunch we had soup, bread and butter, and cookies.
He stands for truth, justice, and law and order.
|Commas vs Semicolons||Rule: Use semicolons for more complex series which incorporate commas into the individual items to separate the phrases. Immediately after the
and / nor / or, insert a comma.
George bought the bacon, it was Smithfield; Karen picked up some organic eggs at the farm stand, you know, over at Farmer Green’s place; and, Mary picked the oranges off the trees to squeeze some juice.
We were trying to decide between going out dancing; seeing that new action flick, although Kandi wants to see that chick flick; or, playing cards, gin, or poker with friends.
|Comma Splice – BAD||Definition: Occurs when two independent clauses (two complete sentences) are joined by a comma.|
|Three Fixes: for this wrong sentence:
I like wearing this helmet, it just doesn’t go with my pumps.
|Exceptions: Hey, it’s English. Of course there are exceptions! (“When is a Comma Splice NOT an Error?“).|
|Rule: Short independent clauses sharing a similar subject may be separated by only commas.|
|Veni, vidi, Visa.
I came, I saw, I shopped.
|Rule: Short independent clauses that express a contrast may be separated by only commas. Also see Conjunctive Adverbs.|
|This is my car, that is my bicycle.
It’s not a dog, it’s a wolf!
We’re not boating tomorrow morning, we’re sleeping in.
You saw that movie, didn’t you?
|Elements of Grammar|
|Adjective, Coordinate||Rule: Use between coordinate adjectives. There is more information on the post, “Adjective“.|
|The irritable, fidgety crowd waited impatiently for the theatre to open.
Her curly, blonde hair was blowing in the wind.
|Adjectives, Multiple||Rule: Multiple adjectives use a comma, if:
I live in a little purple house.
I live in a little and purple house.
The little old lady.
The little and old lady.
She wore a red, leather dress.
She wore a red and leather dress.
The gay, bespectacled, celebrated British artist David Hockney is a master of color.
The gay and bespectacled and celebrated and British artist David Hockney is a master of color.
He is a tall, distinguished fellow.
He is a tall and distinguished fellow.
I live in a very old, run-down house.
I live in a very old and run-down house.
Her shiny, curly, shoulder-length hair trailed across his chest.
Her shiny and curly and shoulder-length hair trailed across his chest.
|Adverb, Conjunctive||Rule: There are four basic rules.|
|Rule 1: If a conjunctive adverb starts a sentence, place a comma after it.|
Indeed, that isn’t too confusing.
Certainly, I can handle this.
Consequently, the tree had to come down.
Furthermore, young lady, you are grounded!
Meanwhile, it’s an escape down the Nile by boat.
Only, Jace Crestwell finds her.
Oops, he found her.
Only Jace Crestwell finds her.
Jace found her, but none of the others did.
|Rule 2: If a conjunctive adverb is within a sentence AND does not separate two independent clauses, encase it in commas.|
|Mary, however, insists that she’s doing fine.
|Rule 3: Joining two independent clauses which is using a conjunctive adverb requires a semicolon before and a comma after the conjunctive adverb.|
Maggie took on the project; however, she soon came to regret it.
Henri took a chance on pursuing Anna; as a result, they’ve been happily married for years.
|Rule 4: Joining two independent clauses without using a conjunction requires a semicolon. Please note that the two clauses should be closely related.|
|Henri took a chance on pursuing Anna; they’ve been happily married for years.
|The key as to whether you use a comma is INDEPENDENT clause.|
|Two Independent Clauses (comma)||One Independent & One Dependent Clause (no comma)|
|Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years, and today he is an accomplished performer.||Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years and today is an accomplished performer.
There’s only one subject in this sentence.
|Interjection||Rule: Use a comma(s) around interjections.|
|Oh no, look what the dog did again!
Damn, we’re all out of milk.
Ah, I do love a massage.
Then I think, oh, to be 16 again.
|CAUTION: The exception is O as “its very nature requires another word or words to complete it” (Skillin, 203).|
|O lovely goddess!
O me! O life! – Walt Whitman
O stay and hear! – Shakespeare
|Compound Verb Phrase||Rule: Don’t use a comma to separate a compound verb phrase UNLESS it is a series of compound verbs.|
Jill was accepted to Harvard but went to Yale instead.
This is a complete thought.
Jill was accepted at Harvard, but she decided to go to Yale instead.
Two separate thoughts.
Before mixing the ingredients for his world-famous cookies, Bobby swatted a fly buzzing around the kitchen and crushed a cockroach scurrying across the floor.
Before mixing the ingredients for his world-famous cookies, Bobby swatted a fly buzzing around the kitchen, crushed a cockroach scurrying across the floor, shooed the cat off the counter, picked his nose, scratched his armpit, licked his fingers, and sneezed.
|Clauses and Phrases|
|Absolute Phrase||Rule: Use a comma to set off an absolute phrase (it’s like a dependent clause but can be moved around in the sentence).|
Their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky, the storks circled high above us.
The storks circled high above us, their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky.
The storks, their slender bodies sleek and black against the orange sky, circled high above us (Nordquist).
|Appositive||Rule: How or if commas are used depends upon whether the word/clause is essential/restrictive or nonessential/
Also see the post, “Appositive“.
|My boyfriend, Devon, and I went to the movies.
“Devon” is considered nonessential information (poor baby) because “I” only have one boyfriend.
My boyfriend Devon and I went to the movies.
“Devon” is one of several boyfriends, which makes using his name essential.
The dog, a Yorkshire terrier, barked at all the neighbors.
What type of dog is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
Marty, the boy in the green shirt, made the only A in the class.
Whether Marty is wearing a green shirt or not is not essential.
|Dependent Clause||Rule: Use a comma after a dependent clause.|
|Before the trial ended, the bailiffs had broken up several fights between the lawyers.
Although it was Mary’s dress, Karen decided to wear it for her date.
Unlike the fey she needs to eat through touch…
Yeah, ’cause there are these other fey that she can eat and not touch.
“Unlike the fey, she needs to eat through touch…” –Melissa Marr, from her Wicked Lovely series
She’s not like the fey. She has to touch to eat.
|Independent Clause||Definition: A sentence that is a complete thought with a subject and a verb. Read more about independent clauses and more in the post on “Sentence“.|
|Compound Sentence||Definition: Contains two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.
Rule: When joining two independent clauses, a coordinating conjunction requires either a comma and a conjunction (not using the conjunction creates a run-on sentence) or a semicolon (see the comma punctuation rule on using a semicolon).
I threw a fit, and Giorgio ignored me.
Johnson stole from the store for years, but nobody caught him.
Mavis had bought a fresh turkey, and she cooked it on the Weber grill.
Dora arrived for her yoga class at 11:30, although she had had no breakfast.
Mary worked on her new quilt, but she didn’t quite finish it.
Carol and Gene practiced their duet, but they had no one to play the xylophone for them.
Bertram worked on his novel, so Angela went to the concert.
|UNLESS the two very short independent clauses strongly contradict each other. Use a comma EVEN IF the second clause is a dependent clause.
CAUTION: If using a conjunction, you don’t need a comma.
|It was the UPS guy, not Godot.
Armistead Maupin didn’t write A Tale of Two Cities, but Tales of the City.
|Two very short independent clauses (notice that they “contradict” each other) joined without a comma will get a nudge and a wink.|
He asked for it so I punched him.
Get all As and I’ll buy you dinner at Friday’s.
|Using a conjunction to join an independent and a dependent clause does not use a comma.|
Johnson stole from the store for years and was never caught.
Mavis had bought a fresh turkey and cooked it on the Weber grill.
Dora arrived for her yoga class at 11:30 but hadn’t had breakfast.
|NOT using a conjunction to join two independent clauses requires a semicolon. The clause pattern is Independent ; independent.|
Sterling Packard owns Mongolian Delites; he’s also a psychology highcap.
Johnson stole from the store for years; nobody caught him.
Mavis had bought a fresh turkey; she cooked it on the Weber grill.
Dora arrived for her yoga class at 11:30; she had had no breakfast.
|Complex Sentence||Definition: Contains an independent clause joined by one or more dependent clauses. A complex sentence always has a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun.
Rule: When using a subordinating conjunction:
When she finished her quilt, we were all impressed with Mary’s artistic abilities.
We were all impressed with Mary’s artistic abilities when she finished her quilt.
Because she was such a bully, we all avoided Helene.
We all avoided Helene because she was such a bully.
|Introductory Phrase or Clause||Rule: Use after an introductory clause, phrase, word, or expression.
Introductory phrases don’t always come at the start and may not always require a comma.
|However, you may not be satisfied with the results.
Well, perhaps he meant no harm.
Yes, the package should arrive tomorrow morning.
Finally, AAA showed up!
He did drop off the equipment, didn’t he?
After preparing an elaborate meal for herself, Anne was too tired to eat.
Anne was too tired to eat after preparing an elaborate meal for herself.
|Parenthetical Text||Rule: When directly addressing someone, you must separate out their name, title, whatever word being used to address a person or beastie (see the post on the The Mystery of the Vocative Case).|
|Oh, Mary, what did you do?
We are still looking, Mrs. Jones.
Yes, Your Majesty, we are attempting just that.
|Vocative Case||Rule: Set off a person’s name with commas if you are addressing them, see Vocative Case, a type of parenthetical text.|
|Are you coming with us, Henry, or not?
Mary, have you seen my razor?
Oh, Helen, it’s lovely.
Now, Mrs. Jones, you know they are still looking.
The prime minister is here to speak with you, my lord.
|Present Participial Phrase||Rule: Whether the -ing phrase needs a comma depends on whether the participial phrase is describing the subject it immediately follows (no comma) OR if it modifies the subject before it (COMMA).|
|Form – NO comma:
Form – Comma:
|She hit me causing an uproar.
Obviously “me” is creating the uproar.
|She hit me, causing an uproar.
It’s clear that the uproar was caused by “she”.
|I looked at Mary trying to process the information.
Mary is trying to figure out something she learned.
|I looked at Mary, trying to process the information.
I am trying to figure out something I learned.
|Andy fixed up the house painting the trim a soft green.
Sounds more like Andy caught the house painting itself.
|Andy fixed up the house, painting the trim a soft green.
Ah, it’s Andy who’s painting the trim.
|Mac sat down with a textbook he had to read before classes began lying on his chest.
Whoa, classes lying on his chest? Maybe the writer meant glasses? Do you think the glasses would begin lying on his chest because Mac was falling asleep?
|Mac sat down with a textbook he had to read before classes began, lying on his chest.
Oh, wait a minute. It’s a book he has to read before classes begin. And the book is on his chest. Phew…
|She approached smiling.
She was getting close to smiling.
She approached me smiling.
“Me” is smiling.
|She approached, smiling.
She’s already smiling, as she approaches.
Following the instructions, I cut out the pieces for my quilt.
|Prepositional Phrase||Rule: Use a comma after a prepositional phrase (preposition + object).|
After finishing the test, he left the room.
To get a seat, you’d better come early.
Before eating lunch, I went jogging.
Betweenthe sun radiating intense heat and our grumbling stomachs, we sought shelter in the café.
In 1964, Where the Wild Things Are won the Caldecott Medal, and in 2009, it entered the Indies Choice Book Award for Picture Book Hall of Fame.
At the start of the race, Lynn was favored to win.
Lynn was favored to win at the start of the race.
|Transitional Phrase||Rule: A transitional phrase uses adverbs, prepositions, and pronouns and is followed by a comma, but never preceded by a comma. Unless, it uses a coordinate conjunction joining two complete sentences, in which case the transitional phrase is preceded by a comma.
A.k.a., transitional element, transitive phrase
|List of Conjunctive Adverbs/Phrases|
|See conjunctive adverbs for more detail and a longer list.|
|I wanted to go, however, Ethan called and reminded me of our appointment.
John had promised the children, otherwise, they’d have stayed home.
We have time, I think, to finish this off.
|Rule: Exceptions, of course, exist. The above examples interrupt a sentence, and sometimes, a sentence flows better without the interruption.|
|Of course we were going!
I think you’ll like this book.
We should therefore stay home.
|City / State||Rule: Separate a city from a state, province, county, country. If a combination is used, separate the geographical locations from the rest of the sentence.|
|San Francisco, California
Burwash, East Sussex, England
|Rule: Combining two geographic locations in a sentence requires a comma between the last location and the rest of the sentence, making that last bit parenthetical:|
|She was born in London, England, in 1976.
The train runs from Chicago, Illinois, to Boston, Massachusetts.
An earthquake almost destroyed San Francisco, California, back in 1906.
St. Petersburg, Russia, has been known by different names through the years.
Seattle, Washington, is the original home of Starbuck’s.
|Rule: This rule changes when it becomes possessive and the parenthetical comma turns into a possessive apostrophe:|
|San Francisco, California’s gay community is thriving.
Seattle, Washington’s known for its coffee.
|Separate an Address||Rule: Separate the “lines” of an address when used in a sentence.|
|No, the Kenners moved to 1234 Main Street, New River, Wisconsin 55555.
No, the Kenners moved to 1234 Main Street over in New River in Wisconsin.
|Dates (months, days, and years)||Rule: Use a comma or a set of commas to make the year parenthetical when the date of the month is included:|
|With the day||July 4, 1776|
|Requires a comma, making the year parenthetical, when used in a sentence||July 4, 1776, is regarded as the birth date of American liberty.|
|Does not require a comma if the date is not included.||July 1776 is regarded as the birth date of American liberty.|
|Without the day||July 1776|
|International or military format||4 July 1776|
|Separate Dates From Days||Rule: Separate the day from the date when used in a sentence.|
|On Wednesday, July 10, 2001, my niece was born.|
|Dialogue||See the section in Formatting on Dialogue.|
|Doubled Words||Rule: Use a comma to separate double words.
Ideally, you will re-write the sentence so this does not occur.
|What the real meaning of the act is, is not entirely clear.
We then set to, to strike the tents and break camp.
|Extreme Contrasts||Rule: Use before “although” and “as” when it is a clause indicating contrast.|
|She was still quite upset, although she had won the Oscar.
I went to bed early, as I was exhausted.
I’m a lover, not a fighter.
|Greetings||Rule: Use a comma after the salutation of a friendly letter and at the closing of any letter.|
|Introduce a Direct Quote||See the entry in the post on “Dialogue” under Multiple paragraphs.|
|Corporate||Rule: In the past, a comma was used to separate Inc. or Ltd. from a company’s name. Style guides have changed and the comma is no longer required. If the company does use the comma in its name, then you may follow their lead or follow the style guide. Whatever you do, be consistent.|
|Title||Rule: When a title, degree, or certification follows the person’s name and is used in a sentence, insert another comma between it and the rest of the sentence.
CAUTION: In a personal title, depending upon the style guide you’re following, use (or don’t) a comma to separate the surname and the title.
|John Jones, MD
John Jones, MD, has been operating for the past two hours.
Mark Harrison, PhD
The speaker today is Mark Harrison, PhD, from Pittsburgh.
Kevin Hall, vice-president of operations, reported on the third quarter.
Vice-President of Operations Kevin Hall reported on the third quarter.
Tom Roberts Jr., MD, FACS, will be the keynote speaker at next year’s conference.
|Rule: Once upon a time, one used a comma to separate the surname from the designation. Today, it’s more common to leave it out.|
|CAUTION: A comma was never used with the roman numeral designations.|
|Numbers||Rule: Always use a comma to separate Arabic numerals once the number goes into the thousands. UNLESS it’s an address.|
|Use a Comma||Don’t Use a Comma|
|In an address:
1310 High Street
In military or European-style time:
|Unique Identifiers||General Definition: When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the extra information is nonessential, and it should be set off from the sentence with commas or a comma and a period if it is the end of the sentence.
You may want to read more in the post on “Identifiers“.
|A Chicago Tribune reporter, Mark Jacobs, wrote the piece on city government corruption.
Jon Andrews, CEO for Pruitt Corporation, spoke at the conference.
The banner was painted by an artist on staff, Anna Lee.
The Georges Seurat Goes Trekky fiber collage was hung in the gallery in time for the show.
Specifies which fiber collage was hung; it’s essential information.
The fiber collage, Georges Seurat Goes Trekky, was hung in the gallery in time for the show.
Putting the artwork’s title within commas indicates that everyone already knows which piece you’re talking about. It’s nonessential information at this point.
A fiber collage, Georges Seurat Goes Trekky, was hung in the gallery in time for the show.
The A makes it indefinite, which makes the title nonessential.
|Identifies Something Unique – Possessive|
|Baseball’s home run leader, Barry Bonds, will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
Baseball is possessive and refers to “home run leader”; “Barry Bonds” is nonessential information, because, obviously, he is the home run leader.
My son John is awesome.
With no commas used, it tells you that he has more than one son.
My son, John, is awesome.
By using commas, it indicates that “my son” is unique and because he only has one son, telling us his son’s name isn’t essential.
|Identifies Something Unique – Restrictor|
|The parenthetical text simply gives us additional information; it’s not essential.|
|Jill Meyers, a sophomore, is president of the sorority.
Steve Meyerson, a local merchant, gave the keynote address.
|Words with Commas|
|No, this is not a complete list, but it is a sampling of how commas are incorporated into various sentence structures and/or certain types of grammar.|
|after|| General Rule: After is a subordinating conjunction and is a common starter word for a clause.
Rule: In an introductory clause:
|After you eat lunch, take the garbage out.|
|Rule: When after is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|Take the garbage out after you eat lunch.|
|although||General Rule: Although is a subordinating conjunction and is a common starter word for a clause.
Rule: Use a comma at the end of an introductory clause.
|Although they were divorced, George continued to refer to her as his wife.|
|Rule: When although is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|George continued to refer to her as his wife although they were divorced.|
|Rule: Do use a comma with although if indicating extreme contrast.|
|She was still quite upset, although she had won the Oscar.|
|and||Rule: Items in a series are separated by commas including the list item preceding the and.|
|…apples, oranges, and bananas…
I bought bacon, eggs, and juice at the grocery store.
The warrior ran along the edge of the river, over the larger rocks, and through the shallow pools.
|Rule: A coordinating conjunction connects two independent clauses.|
|I held her in one arm, and she held me with both.|
|Rule: Joining an independent and dependent clause:|
|I reached deeper water and waded in.|
|Rule: As a parenthetical:|
|Our crops have long needed rain, and so it is, our children are dying.|
|as||General Rule: As is a subordinating conjunction and is a common starter word for a clause. You may also want to view the post on “As” or As You Like It“.
Rule: In an introductory clause:
|As an example, you could say this or that.
As you know, the budget is skewed against us.
|Rule: For cause:|
|I went to bed early, as I was exhausted.|
|Rule: When as is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|You could say this or that as an example.|
|because||General Rule: Because is a subordinating conjunction and is a common starter word for a clause.
Rule: In an introductory clause:
|Because her alarm clock was broken, she was late for class.|
|Rule: When because is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|She was late for class because her alarm clock was broken.|
|but||Rule: In a coordinating conjunction or expressing a contrast.|
|I told him to stop it, but he just laughed.|
|Rule: With a parenthetical:|
|The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring.
The Yankees didn’t do so well in the early going, but frankly, everyone expects them to win the season.
|Rule: Do not use a comma with but if it is used as part of a description.|
|Another stood just as large but still clutched within the hillside.|
|for||Rule: For is a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses.|
|The earl requests that Tristan investigate the why of the man’s murder, for it could have dire consequences for Britain.|
|however||Rule: However is a common introductory word:|
|However, other tests display quite different results.|
|Rule: When connecting two independent clauses:|
|We were supposed to go to the dance last night; however, it was cancelled because of lack of interest.|
|Rule: As an interruption in the middle of the same sentence:|
|The match at Wimbledon, however, continued despite the bad weather.|
|Rule: When used as a conjunctive adverb or in a transitional phrase, separate the two clauses into either two sentences with the however used as an introductory word, followed by a comma, OR use a semicolon before and a comma after:|
|I don’t like cake. However, I love scones.
I don’t like cake; however, I love scones.
|if||Rule: If is a subordinating conjunction and a common starter word for a clause.
Also see the post on “Conditional Phrases“.
Rule: In an introductory clause:
|If you are ill, you should see a doctor.|
|Rule: When if is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|You should see a doctor if you’re ill.|
|nor||Rule: Items in a series are separated by commas including the list item preceding the nor.|
|They wouldn’t come outside, talk to us, nor would they play.|
|Rule: As a coordinating conjunction, it connects two independent clauses.|
|You shouldn’t expect it, nor should you believe it.|
|or||Rule: Items in a series are separated by commas including the list item preceding the or.|
|We were trying to decide between going out dancing, the movies, or playing cards with friends.|
|Rule: As a coordinating conjunction, it connects two independent clauses.|
|You shouldn’t expect it, or you could order it up.|
|since||General Rule: Since is a subordinating conjunction and a common starter word for a clause.
Rule: In an introductory clause:
|Since you’re here, we might as well get started.
I played football, since I was nine (Lakin).
The reason I played football was because I was nine, implying “I” was at a qualifiable age.
|Rule: When since is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|We might as well get started since you’re here.
I played football since I was nine (Lakin).
I started playing football at age nine.
|that||Rule: As an essential clause after a noun:|
|The book that I borrowed from you is excellent.
The apples that fell out of the basket are bruised.
|Rule: As an essential clause after a verb expressing mental action:|
|She believes that she will be able to earn an A.
He is dreaming that he can fly.
I contend that it was wrong to mislead her.
They wished that warmer weather would arrive.
|then||Rule: Using commas with
thenindicates the meaning.
|If you want me, then you’ll have to come and get me.
I told him to stop it, then he just laughed.
I want to finish cleaning the house, then I can relax.
|Rule: Often needed when then means
in that case.
|Meet me at the hot tub, then.
Then I guess you’ll just have to make it up to me, baby.
|Rule: If used as filler, such as:
|Until then, you’ll have to make do with me.
I finished running my five miles, and then I rewarded myself with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
Well, then, what are ya gonna do about it?
|Rule: If then means
at that time, it rarely uses a comma.
|Meet me at the hot tub then.
Can you do it then?
|though||Rule: As a subordinating conjunction, it doesn’t require a comma.|
|She paused as though a thought had occurred to her.
Even though she had bathed and perfumed herself, she still smelled bad.
Even though we dropped prices, we still couldn’t sell them.
|Rule: When though is used as an adverb, it often indicates an afterthought and should be separated with a comma.|
|I’m sorry, I can’t chat for too long. I can stop for a coffee, though.
There’s a storm coming, though, isn’t there?
That will fade with time, though.
We’ll never get out of this airport, though!
|Rule: Do NOT separate with a comma when the independent clause is placed first and the dependent clause second.|
|I was going to take the class though it wasn’t necessary for my degree.|
|too||Rule: If you want to emphasize the idea/thought.|
|That too will fade with time.
That, too, will fade with time.
That will fade with time too.
That will fade with time , too.
|well||Rule: When used as a qualifier.|
|She seems well enough.
It’s a well-written essay.
It’s well thought out.
He was soon singing as well as Caruso.
|Rule: As a common introductory word:|
|Well, we were going to go to the movies.
Well, they are going through some tough times.
Well, let’s take care of that break.
Well, well, well, look who we have here.
|when||General Rule: As a subordinating conjunction, when is a common starter word for a clause and may or may not require a comma.
Rule: When when is used in an introductory clause, use a comma:
|When the snow stops falling, we’ll shovel the driveway.
When my dog walks over to the door and looks back at me, I know he wants out.
You’ll recognize him when you see him.
|Rule: When when is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|We’ll shovel the driveway when the snow stops falling.
I’ll tell you the next step when you finish this one.
|whether||Commonly begins a dependent clause, and when used at the start of the sentence, should be separated from the independent clause with a comma.|
|Whether I finish my book or not, all my books have to go back on Monday.
All my books have to go back on Monday whether I finish my book or not.
Whether you keep your appointment is up to you, but you will pay for an office visit whether or not you show up.
|How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese (Richard Nordquist)?|
|Apples, which are my favorite fruit, are the main ingredient in this casserole.|
|while||General Rule: While is a subordinating conjunction and a common starter word for a clause and may or may not use a comma.
Rule: When while is used in an introductory clause, use a comma:
|While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.
While you were out, this package came.
|Rule: When while is used in a dependent clause following a main clause, do not use a comma.|
|The cat scratched at the door while I was eating.
This package came while you were out.
|Students who cheat only harm themselves.
The candidate who had the least money lost the election.
|Fred, who often cheats, is just harming himself.
The Green Party candidate, who had the least money, lost the election.
|yes||Rule: Yes is a common introductory word.|
|Yes, the chair should go in the living room.
Oh, yes, I loved that movie.
|yet||Rule: Yet is a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses and is separated from either clause by a comma.|
|I don’t see any point, yet, I will listen.|
* Thanks to Samantha and nine others who wrote “How to Celebrate National Punctuation Day“.