The comma is the most often used mark of punctuation within a sentence.  Study its use carefully. The comma is a valuable, useful tool in a sentence because it helps the reader pause in the right places. The rules provided here are those found in traditional handbooks; however, in certain rhetorical contexts and for specific purposes, these rules may be broken.

Use a comma to separate independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction, (and, but, or nor, yet, and for)

John became very uneasy, for he was lost in the vast forest.  We did not see any Indians in the Everglades, nor did we meet any tourists.


Use commas to set off she said, he replied, and similar expressions from direct quotations.

She said, “We will see you this afternoon.”  “I run as fast as I can.”


Use commas to indicate omissions.

Henry will go to Harvard; Helen, to Vassar.


Use commas to separate a series of three or more coordinate words, phrases, or clauses, Always use a comma before etc. at the end of a series.

I often saw him on the street, at church, in the post office, at ball games, and in his office.

Pens, ink, paper, etc. will be provided.


Use commas to set off words used in direct address.

I am sure, Mr. Smith, that your son will win the first prize.


Use comma after a mild interjection.

“Oh, perhaps there is no danger,” he said.


Use commas to set off dates and geographical expressions.

He moved to 201 Cedar Avenue, Portland, Oregon, on Monday, October 1, 1963, and returned 2 months later.


Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase when the clause or phrase is long or may be misunderstood.

As I entered the door of the little house we boys had built, I saw John hide behind his desk.

While looking for my book, I found an old slipper I had lost years ago.

In the early light of dawn, we often feel more optimistic than we do at 6:00 o’clock in the evening.


Use commas to set off appositives not closely connected with the meaning of the sentence.

Bill, who is the captain of our team, is the brother of Lawrence, a member of my high school class.


Use commas to set off initials or titles following a personal name.

Professor H.A. Brown, Ph.D., talked to us today.

Smith, T.B., and Stone, F.M., are absent.


Use commas to set off any parenthetical or inserted matter in the sentence.

The boys, however, had rather go fishing.  I will go, of course, if you insist.


Use commas to set off non-restrictive words, phrases, and clauses.  Do not use commas to set off restrictive modifiers.

Computers, which are found almost everywhere, have become necessary to modern life.   (Non-restrictive clause)

Computers that have crashed are useless. (Restrictive clause)


Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: AND, BUT, FOR, OR, NOR, SO, YET

The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.


Use commas after introductory (a) clauses, (b) phrases, or (c) words that come BEFORE the main clause.

Because her alarm clock was broken, she was late for class.
If you are ill, you ought to see a doctor.


(a) Some common starter words for clauses are:

While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.

(b) Some common starter words for phrases are:
VERB +-ING (Driving, Looking, Thinking)

Having finished the test, he left the room.

TO + VERB (To see, To understand, To go)

To get a seat, you’d better come early.

LONG PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE (over four words)  (In the early light, around my childhood neighborhood)

After the test but before lunch, I went jogging.

(c) Some common words preceding a comma:

Well, perhaps he meant no harm.


Use a pair of commas in the middle of the sentence to set off phrases, clauses, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.


Can you leave out the clause, phrase, or word and still have the sentence make sense? If so, use a comma to set them off.

Does the non-essential clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence?

Can you move the non-essential element around in the sentence?

Many Western heroes, at least in the movies, act brusquely towards women.

Does the clause begin with “THAT”? “THAT” clauses after nouns are almost always essential. “THAT” clauses which follow a verb expressing mental action are always essential. No comma is needed in these cases.

“THAT” after nouns:

The book that I borrowed from you is excellent.
Apples that are green are usually called Granny Smith apples.

“THAT” clauses which follow a verb expressing mental action:

She believes that she will be able to earn an A.
He dreams that he can fly.
I contend that it was wrong to mislead her.
They wish that warm weather would finally arrive.


A student who cheats only harms himself.
The girl wearing the tight sweater is attracting a lot of attention.


Apples, which are my favorite fruit, are usually harvested in autumn.
Fred, who often cheats, is just harming himself.
Professor Benson, grinning from ear to ear, announced that the exam would be
Tom, the captain of the team, was injured in the game.
It is up to you, Jane, to finish.
She was, however, too tired to make the trip.
Two hundred dollars, I think, is sufficient.


Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, and clauses written in a series.

Are the last two items in the series connected with either AND or OR?

She couldn’t choose between John, Jim, or Joe.
The candidate promised to lower taxes, solve the energy shortage, and end unemployment.


Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun.

Can the adjectives be written in reverse order? If your answer is yes, add a comma.
Can you add an AND between the adjectives? If your answer is yes, add a comma.

a greedy, stubborn child
a white frame house
a purple wool shawl
an easy, happy smile


Use commas near the end of the sentence to separate sharply contrasted coordinate elements in the sentence or to indicate a distinct voice pause.

He was merely ignorant, not stupid.
You’re one of the senator’s right-hand men, aren’t you?


Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence which refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. These phrases are free modifiers which can appropriately be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of the sentence without causing confusion for the reader.

CORRECT: Nancy waved enthusiastically at her parents on the boat, laughing gaily in the process.

INCORRECT: Jane waved at Nancy, laughing gaily. (Who is laughing, Jane or Nancy?)


Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the months and day), addresses (except the street name and number), and titles in names.

Birmingham, Alabama, gets its name from Birmingham, England.
July 22, 1959, was a momentous day in his life.
Who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.?
Donald B. Lake, MD., will be the principal speaker.


Use commas after “he said,” etc. to set off direct quotations and after the first part of a quotation in a sentence.

John said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I was able,” she answered, “to complete the assignment.”


Use commas anywhere in the sentence to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

To John, Harrison had been a sort of idol.


Comma Abuse: Commas in the wrong places can chop ideas into wrong pieces or confuse the reader with unnecessary pauses.

Don’t separate a subject from its verb.

INCORRECT: The eighteen-year old in California, is now considered an adult.

INCORRECT: The most important attribute of a ball player, is quick reflex actions.

Don’t put a comma between 2 verbs!

INCORRECT: We laid out our music and snacks, and began to study.

INCORRECT: I turned the corner, and ran smack into a patrol car.

Don’t put a comma before a dependent (or subordinate) clause when it comes after the main clause (except for extreme contrast.)

INCORRECT: She was late for class, because her alarm clock was broken.

INCORRECT: You ought to see a doctor, if you are ill.

CORRECT – EXTREME CONTRAST: She was still quite upset, although she won the Oscar.

Copyright (C)1999 by Ed Reber. All rights reserved.This document may be distributed as long as it is done entirely with all attributions to organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is strictly prohibited. Portions of this document may be copyrighted by other organizations.