Elements of Craft

Comma Usage

The comma appears to be a harmless little fellow, but don't let appearances deceive you. Sure, the little guy never shouts, never declares, never questions, never even finishes a sentence, for that matter, but that doesn't mean he holds no power. In fact, he is the hardest working of all the punctuation marks, the only one often appearing more than once in a single sentence. He holds the power to change the meaning of a sentence and to disrupt the flow of prose. Therefore, isn't it time to give the little guy his due and quit misunderstanding him? Here's his M.O. --

  • Use a comma to separate the clauses of a compound sentence connected by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so and yet). The comma is placed before the coordinating conjunction, not after. Examples:
The students ate spaghetti for dinner, but no one cleaned his plate.
I gave three books to John, and John gave them to Nancy.
However, do not use a comma before and, but, or and nor when they link pairs of words, phrases or elements other than main clauses. Examples:
The students ate spaghetti for dinner and cake for dessert.
I gave three books to John and four to Nancy.
The trick here is to recognize if the conjunction separates a main clause (or major thought), or if it simply links pairs of words or phrases.
Also, the comma may be omitted in short compound sentences when the connection between the clauses is close, such as:
Justin stood in the corner and he watched.
If the sentence is clearly understandable without the comma, it is probably okay to omit it.
  • The comma separates two or more adjectives modifying the same noun if and could be used between them without changing the meaning. Example:
Janine pushed her long, straight hair out of her eyes.
However, do not use a comma between unequal adjectives or when an adjective modifies another adjective (instead of the noun):
His coal black hair glistened in the brilliant midday sun.
The test is whether and can be substituted for the comma.
  • The comma also separates the items in a list or a series. Example:
Jasmine visited the park, the museum, the court house, and the historical hotel on the last day of her vacation.
Note that the comma before the last item in the series (the one directly before and) is optional. Also, note that no comma appears before the first element in the list (the park), nor after the last element in the list (the historical hotel).
  • The comma is used in setting off transitional expressions (however, regardless, of course and so on) from the rest of the sentence. Examples:
The weight of the ball, however, was greater than the strength of the boy.
Of course, we could have eaten after they arrived.
Did he, after all, sleep in the den?
  • The comma is used with introductory elements:
No, he didn't wear a hat.
Well, that was the just the beginning of my problems.
When the bell rings, the students race through the halls.
  • A comma sets off long phrases that precede a principal clause:
Before we could call Great Aunt Mary, we had to locate her phone number.
After listening to the forty-five minute sermon, the children were in no mood for lectures.


Confused yet? Great! There are even more rules to remember!

  • The comma sets off words or phrases that rename nouns. Examples:
John, my oldest cousin, loves to garden.
Parkersburg, the third largest city in West Virginia, has a population of 38,000.
The girl, who had cried the day before, played happily with the other toddlers.
However, do not use a comma if the added information is essential to the meaning of the sentence, such as:
The song "Unchained Melody" melts my heart.
People who dream in color are thought to be clairvoyant.
The girl who had cried the day before made friends; the girl who had been friendly sat quietly alone.
The test is whether the sentence makes sense if the renamed noun is removed from the sentence.
  • A comma can indicate the omission of a word or words:
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
  • A comma is used to set off a word of direct address:
Aunt Mary, this is my friend, Nathan.
People, don't let this happen to you.
Thank you, Wilma, for teaching me about commas.
  • A comma is used set off a quotation from a dialogue tag. Examples:
He said, "I didn't do it."
"I don't believe it," Jason replied, "but maybe if you prove it, I will."
"I don't believe it, either," Anna said. "Prove it."
  • A comma sets off a tag question from the rest of the sentence:
I didn't see it there, did you?
That's the best movie of the year, isn't it?
  • A comma also can be used to set off any sentence element that might be misunderstood if the comma were not used, such as:
To me, Millie would always be my best friend.
Some time ago, Roxanne decided to become a dancer.
  • And finally, a comma is used to set off a city from a state, the year from a full date, a series of four or more numbers, and to set off titles and degress from surnames and from the rest of a sentence:
My children were born in Winneconne, Wisconsin.
My oldest daughter was born on November 21, 1986.
I wish my husband made $625,000 a year.
My husband's full name is Sherden C. Tritt, Jr., although he goes by "Butch."


As you can see, the innocuous little fellow known as the comma can be quite cantankerous. It's no wonder that comma usage is the number one mistake I see on manuscripts I edit. Study this little guy--once you've mastered him, you've accomplished a great feat. Good luck!

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