To comma or not to comma!?

I have begged, borrowed and stolen many rules from many sources in order to teach COMMAS!? They are overused, underused and misused. Do you like all of my series?

So, here is a quick summary of a few of the MANY MANY MANY RULES!…Let’s dive in! 🙂

Rule #1: Use a comma to separate three or more things

EXAMPLE: He’s bundled in a wool coat, mitts, hat, scarf and snow-boots because it’s so cold.

You try: Katherine did the shopping cleaned the house and finished the laundry.

ALSO: If you’re repeating words for emphasis, a comma will separate the repeated words so it’s clear you haven’t made a typo.

EXAMPLE: I really, really like chocolate.

You try: Maggie has been a naughty naughty dog.

RULE #2: Before a quote

EXAMPLE: She told her students, “I would add the comma before the quote.”


“I could add the comma at the end of the quote,” this amazing person said.

You try:  “I just have to get a new car “ she said as she stood in the garage. She then continued “I know I can find a good deal!”

Rule #3: Comma Use Around Interrupters

Interrupters are little thoughts in the middle of a thought, added to show emotion, tone or emphasis. When we use an interrupter in the middle of the sentence, it should be emphasized with commas. Without the use of commas, the flow of the sentence may be awkward for the reader. Interrupters are easily identified by saying the sentence out loud; you’ll naturally pause where the commas should be.

EXAMPLE: Queen Victoria was, as they say, a formidable woman.

The interrupter as they say needs a comma before and after it to emphasize its separation from the rest of the sentence.

You try: Having demonstrated a decided lack of ethics, the CEO was needless to say dismissed from the company.

You try: It does indeed look like rain.

Names can also be interrupters.

EXAMPLE: What, Susan, do you think?

You try: Where do you suppose Davey your shoes might have gone this time?

Here are some more common interrupters: in fact, to say the least, however, generally speaking, sadly, happily, and unfortunately.

Rule #4: Commas After Introductory Phrases

An introductory phrase is like a clause, but it doesn’t have its own subject and verb; it relies on the subject and verb in the main clause.

EXAMPLE: Fighting against reason, Martha decided to pull an all-nighter in hopes of passing the exam.

First, what kind of phrase is this?

REMEMBER?? A participial phrase: (acts like an ADJECTIVE! And starts with a what?? A participle: remember, a participle is a VERB that became an adjective: Splash and built now are adjectives. Despite the type of verb, these phrases modify the noun that immediately follows them.)

EXAMPLE: Splashing through the puddles, the girls looked like they were having a blast.

EXAMPLE: Built in the 1920s, the house had a stronger foundation than originally thought.

(remember, a participle is a VERB that became an adjective: Splash and built now are adjectives)

You try:

Finding a good book she decided to take a break and read!

Remembering what is a participle he finished his grammar homework quickly.

What about this example?
In the heat of the moment, many people make rash decisions.

REMEMBER?? A prepositional phrase (starts with a what??? A preposition!)

You try:

Without understanding why, Annie woke from a deep sleep with an urge to check on her children.

Between March and April the little boy grew three inches.

By flashlight in the woods we made our way along the path.

What about this example?
To experience the delights of high-altitude meadows, we drove a Jeep through mountain roads.

REMEMBER? An infinitive phrase (starts with a what??? An infinitive!)

You try:

To dance all night she must have maintained tip-top physical conditioning.

Rule #5: Use a Comma After Introductory Clauses

Remember: A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a verb.  A clause that can function as a sentence on its own is called an independent clause: e.g., My sister eats a lot of ice cream.

Dependent (subordinate): Cannot stand on its own

Independent: Can stand on its own

Introductory clauses are dependent clauses which are found at the beginning of the sentence (although they can be moved to the end of the sentence, too, without confusing the meaning of the sentence). After a dependent introductory clause, we use a comma to separate the introductory clause from the independent clause. The dependent introductory clause may start with an adverb or conjunction like although, if, or when.

EXAMPLE: As the man was walking into the store, he came face-to-face with his childhood sweetheart.

EXAMPLE: Because the rain was torrential, the day’s Little League games were postponed.

You try:

Although temperatures were freezing we stayed warm in front of the fireplace.

Before the ambulance arrived I performed CPR on the unconscious victim.

(The clause starts with either a subordinate conjunction, such as after, while, if, etc…. The clauses cannot stand on their own because they are incomplete thoughts)

You try:

If you are not ready to commit you are unlikely to experience success while trying to lose weight (“if” is a subordinate conjunction).

Common mistake: Using a Comma After Conjunction in Introductory Clause

Introductory clauses frequently begin with a conjunction (although, since, when, if, etc.) There should be no comma after the conjunction in the introductory clause.

EXAMPLE: Because, it was going to rain, we cancelled the picnic.

(The comma after because should be removed; the comma after rain is properly used as it separates the introductory clause from the independent clause.)

What’s wrong with these sentences? FIX THEM:

After, flunking her Victorian Literature class, Martha decided to do the assigned reading.

When and if, it gets delivered, please bring the package into my office immediately.

So, that the water didn’t get in, we attached rubber seals around the windows.


Rule #6: Use Comma After Introductory Clause With Date

Dependent introductory clauses which include a date should be offset by a comma. The date can be a year or the date of the month.

EXAMPLE: In 1989, he graduated from high school.

By the 1960s, most households had a television set.

You try:

During the 1800s canned foods were becoming popular.

Since November 15th we’ve raised more than a thousand dollars for charity.

A couple of side notes on comma usage

  • A comma can change a noun to a verb.
    • The panda eats shoots and leaves.
    • The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.
  • A comma can change the person to whom you are speaking into the person aboutwhom you are speaking, and determine the rest of the punctuation in the sentence.
    • Mary is the one today.
    • Mary, is the one today?
  • A comma can tell the reader to pause for a brief moment because what you’re about to say will add another mind-boggling idea:
  •     The gymnast leapt several feet into the air, and then he did a triple twist and a somersault.
  • Commas are also used to offset information (such as found in an appositive or an introductory clause).
    • Yesterday, we went to the park for a picnic.
    • Michael, my brother, is a nice guy.
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