Commas and how to use them (Part 1)

Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.

What is a comma? What does it do?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’

The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.

One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.

Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it into two parts. The second part will post on July 3rd, so watch this space!

The Listing Comma

(Standard) = You know Bob, Sue and Greg? They came to visit me.

(Oxford) = You know Bob, Sue, and Greg? They came to visit me.

The Oxford (serial) comma is the most widely used form for any series of words or lists:

Rule: Use a comma to separate each item in a series; a series is a group of three or more items having the same function and form in a sentence.

  1. We bought apples, peaches, and bananas today. (series of words)

  2. Mary promised that she would be a good girl, that she would not bite her brother, and that she would not climb onto the television. (series of clauses)

  3. The instructor looked through his briefcase, through his desk, and around the office for the lost grade book. (series of phrases)

Using a serial (Oxford) comma can be useful for making your meaning clearer, as in:

My favourite opera composers are Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Gilbert and Sullivan. (In this example, you can see how important that little punctuation mark after Mozart is, as it allows us to group ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ separately in the list as a single entity.)

The Introductory Comma

Rule: Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. A comma tells readers that the introductory clause or phrase has come to a close and that the main part of the sentence is about to begin.

  1. When Evan was ready to iron, his cat tripped on the cord.

  2. Near a small stream at the bottom of the canyon, park rangers discovered a gold mine.

We also have introductory words: Outside, the sun shone brightly. (Without the comma, the opening sentence would read, ‘Outside the sun …’.) Today, we shall go to the cinema. However, that wasn’t the case.

The Joining Comma

The joining comma is only slightly different from the listing comma. We can use a comma to join independent clauses (two complete thoughts/sentences) , and we must follow it with a suitable connecting word. The connecting words we can use in this way are and, or, but, while, yet, etc.

Rule: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, so, or, nor, for) when it joins two complete ideas (independent clauses).

  1. He walked down the street, and then he turned the corner.

  2. You can go shopping with me, or you can go to a movie alone.

  3. Norway has applied to join the EC, and Sweden is expected to do the same.

  4. You must hand in your essay by Friday, or you will receive a mark of zero.

You cannot join two sentences with a comma unless you also use one of these connecting words. All of the following examples are, therefore, wrong:

  1. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, its annual income is only $80 per person.

  2. The British are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, the Dutch are famously good at it.

  3. The proposal to introduce rock music to Radio 3 has caused an outcry, angry letters have been pouring into the BBC.

  4. Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, the following year he lost in the final to McEnroe.

Joining two complete sentences with a comma in this way makes for one of the commonest of all punctuation errors, but one of the easiest to avoid if you pay a little attention to what you’re writing. Either you must follow the comma with one of the connecting words listed above, or you must replace the comma with a semicolon.

Note also that you cannot precede most other connecting words with a joining comma. For example, the connecting words however, therefore, hence, consequently, nevertheless, and thus cannot be used after a joining comma. Hence the following examples are also wrong:

  1. Saturn was long thought to be the only ringed planet, however, this is now known not to be the case.

  2. Two members of the expedition were too ill to continue, nevertheless the others decided to press on.

  3. Liverpool are five points behind the leaders, therefore they must win both their remaining games.

Sentences like these once again require, not a comma, but a semicolon. As so:

1. Saturn was long thought to be the only ringed planet; however, this is now known not to be the case.

  1. Two members of the expedition were too ill to continue; nevertheless the others decided to press on.

*3. Liverpool are five points behind the leaders; therefore they must win both their remaining games.

That’s it for today, and we’ll come back next time to cover the Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.

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Harmony Kent


55 thoughts on “Commas and how to use them (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for this post! Commas in English are my nightmare, especially since their use is different from my mother language.
    I use Grammarly to correct some of my mistakes in this area, but I keep being confused.
    Thank you for clarifying some issues!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you’ve found this helpful, Irene. In my experience, while Grammarly has improved, it still hiccups on those pesky commas, lols. Best of luck 🙂


  2. My experience teaching college writing for 25 years led me to believe that telling people rules makes their eyes glaze over. I personally love commas; they control emphasis and sentence rhythm and serve as simple traffic signs to tell readers which part of a sentence they’re currently in and when they are changing directions. I’ve posted a bunch about commas on my blog because I love them so much. In one post I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the missing comma after “post” in this sentence and the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:
    After introductory elements (usually)
    Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
    In direct address (always)
    Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of three or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
    Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)

    I note that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it. Observance of that caution will eliminate a lot of commas between nouns and their verbs!

    Thanks for contributing to an important discussion for writers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I took college grammar back in 2008 or 2009. The instructor and the grammar book said the comma wasn’t need when using connecting words to connect two short sentences. I guess like: Jane jumped rope and Tom threw rocks. But they weren’t very clear on how many words made the sentences short enough not to need the comma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, now I’m laughing! I hate this kind of sentence formulation; it’s so clumsy! At first, without a comma, you read it that Jane jumped rope and Tom … !!! lols Kinda changes the sense when you finally get to the ‘threw rocks’ bit. he he he 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Harmony, for this helpful post. I have a love/hate relationship with commas. 🙂 I was taught to use the semi colon before and the comma after the connecting words: therefore, however, etc. But I have had editors who changed the semi-colon before to a comma and remove the comma after. I noticed sometimes you used the comma after and sometimes you didn’t. How do you know when to used the comma after and when not to? Does it have something to do with sentence length? It’s worth paying an editor just to fix my comma placement. 😀 It’s one of those things I think I’ve got it and then get confused again. Also, should you put a comma before the word ‘too’ when it’s at the end of a sentence? It used to be yes but then I heard it’s no longer necessary. Btw, most of the business people I work with don’t use commas, and I hear many lawyers don’t when they’re writing reports.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim, whether to use a semi colon or not depends on whether you’re bracketing or changing clauses. For example, the following is a clause change using a joining word and semi colon … ‘Many different people witnessed me there daily; however, no one ever asked what I was doing or on whose authority I did it.’ I would comma after this kind of however because it acts as an introductory word in this case. Some people differ on whether you need to comma introductory words, for me that’s a yes most of the time. The next example uses bracketing commas around however within the same clause, meaning the sentence would read fine without it … ‘I did, however, later in life, take up scuba diving.’ Hope all this helps! 🙂 With the ‘too’ question, I don’t tend to unless it follows something like a ‘me’. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Harmony! I get these uses of commas, but I’m waiting for part 2, because that’s probably where my problems are. I’ll write and include my commas, then read through later and remove commas, then read through later and add them back. Uffda!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It depends on how correctly they speak to start with, lols. If they have an accent and abbreviate a lot, then it can work well breaking the rule 🙂 However, it needs to read easily too, so it can be a fine balance! Most of the time, in real life, we short-cut a lot, but if we always wrote our dialogue like this to reflect that usage, it would make for arduous reading indeed. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. For a while it seemed the Oxford comma was out of fashion, and now it’s back. I got used to deleting it (when that was the trend), now I’m trying to remember to reinsert it. Commas are not my strength by any means, and I am thankful to have an editor who catches them!
    Nice overview, Harmony!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you, Harmony! Commas are my downfall, and I’ve become a little obsessed with them! I’m always joining sentences without using a coordinating conjunction. I’m getting better at recognizing it, though. Writing poetry, I often don’t use the conjunction because it can change the cadence. I feel the metaphors are more penetrating without them. What do you think? Thanks again for sharing this and for your continued support! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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