By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated, November 26, 2013)
Many people are confused about where to put their commas. Here are eight rules that will help your commas end up in the right places.
1. Use commas to separate clauses (chunks) of sentences, especially asides (information that could go in parentheses) and clauses that begin with which:
John, who liked to juggle power tools, spent a lot of time in the hospital emergency ward.
Mel was happy with his career as a primal scream therapist, but his neighbors wished he would find another line of work.
Jeb decided to wear a clown suit to work, which was the reason he was fired.
Note: don’t use commas with that clauses:
It was wearing a clown suit to work that cost Jeb his job.
2. Commas are also used to separate actions or items in a series:
Norbert brought silly string, a squirt gun, and water balloons to the meeting.
Should you use a comma before and in a series or leave it out? This is a matter of personal preference. Either way is fine as long as you do it consistently. (Some style guides demand one approach or the other.)
3. Use commas before and after names in a conversation:
“Hello, Darth Vader.”
“Luke, I am your father.”
4. Add commas before and after quotations:
“We’ll go tomorrow,” said Ericka. “Good,” said Lorelei, “because I don’t want to miss the singing frog exhibit.”
One exception to this rule occurs when the quotation ends with a question mark (?) or an exclamation mark (!). In these cases, no comma is added.
“I can’t believe you stole my hamster!” said John.
A second exception occurs when a quote is introduced with that:
Leo Tolstoy said that “[a]ll great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”
A third exception occurs when quotes are embedded in the sentence structure:
Jake drew the wrath of the grammar police when he said that he had “literally exploded with rage” after the poodle incident.
5. Use a comma after an introductory word or phrase to mark a pause:
Finally, we can get some pancakes.
However, she was not surprised that Melvin kept all the Milk Duds for himself.
While Norton read Horton Hears a Who, Nina crept into his office and stole all his pencils.
6. Use commas before and after place names when both the city or town and province/state/country are provided:
Nettie grew up in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, and moved to Spuzzum, British Columbia, when she was twenty-three years old.
7. Use commas with dates when the month, day, and year are all given:
Wilbur got married on January 13, 2012, and was divorced on May 6, 2013.
Note: If the day or year is not provided in a date, don’t add commas:
Caleb started training for the upcoming Extreme Ironing Championships in January 2012.
Beverly won her first hot dog eating contest on January 22.
8. Use commas with adjectives if you could add and between them:
Mr. Bellweather was a happy, friendly monkey. (Here, a comma is used because you could add and between happy and friendly and the sentence would still make sense.)
Avery shocked everyone at the office by showing up for the meeting in a red silk dress. (No comma is needed here because you wouldn’t say a red and silk dress. Red is actually describing the silk.)
- American Psychological Association. (2011). “Punctuating Around Quotation Marks.” Blog.APAStyle.org.
- Brians, P. (n.d.). Common Errors in English Language.
- Capital Community College Foundation. (n.d.). “Quotation Marks” and “Commas.” Grammar.ccc.commnet.edu.
- Fogarty, M. (2010). Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips.
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- OWL at Purdue. (2013). “How to Use Quotation Marks” and “Extended Rules for Using Commas.” The Writing Lab & the OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. OWL.English.Purdue.edu.
- Strauss, J. (2013). Grammarbook.com.
- The Guardian. (2013). “‘The British style’? ‘The American way?’ They are not so different.” TheGuardian.com.
- Trask, L. (1997). Guide to Punctuation. University of Sussex.