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Commas

Use a comma:

  • (Rule 1) in series and lists.
  • (Rule 2) after an introductory phrase.
  • (Rule 3) to set off nonrestrictive clauses.
  • (Rule 4) to set off interjections and transitional phrases.
  • (Rule 5) with a coordinating conjunction to separate two independent clauses.

Rule-1

Use a comma to separate each item in a series or list of three or more words, phrases, or clauses. Also, use commas with descriptive words where two or more adjectives modify the same noun.
 

Example

I made the beds, swept the floors, vacuumed the carpet, and scrubbed the bathtub to get ready for our guests. Then I went shopping to stock the refrigerator with drinks, vegetables, and fruit. I hope I’m ready to welcome them into our home and to have a great visit.


In this example, the four underlined clauses in the opening series are separated by commas, and the three underlined words in the list are separated by commas. Notice that the concluding sentence does not contain any commas. In this sentence, the clause to welcome them into our home and the clause to have a great visit are part of a series of only two elements and are simply separated by the conjunction and "."

Note that a series of words or phrases is marked by a relationship between the elements, whereas a list is simply a notation of two or more words that may or may not be related. For instance, in the example above, the first sentence contains a series of clauses. Each clause is related because they are all actions that the person took. The second sentence contains a list of items such as you would take to the grocery store.

Commas are also used with descriptive words. Use a comma in a series of two or more adjectives that modify the same noun.

 

 
Example
The long, narrow, winding road lead to a beautiful, serene lake.

In this example, long, narrow, and winding are adjectives that all modify the noun road. Thus, they are separated by commas. Likewise, beautiful and serene modify lake and are separated by commas. Note that no comma follows the last adjective in the series; also be careful in determining the function of the last word of the series. You must make sure that all the adjectives equally modify the noun.
 
 
Example
Before you watch TV, I want you to clean the dirty, grimy kitchen sink.

In this example, kitchen sink acts as a single noun because without kitchen, sink is not adequately identified. Therefore, grimy is the last adjective before the noun in the series and no comma should be placed after it.
 
 

Check your work
Look through your work for any series of words, phrases or clauses. If there are two or more of these elements, place a comma after all but the last one.

 

Example

He thought taking a road trip would help him feel rejuvenated allow him to work through his feelings and provide some much needed solitude in which to get his studying done.


Here the three clauses are underlined. Once you have identified these clauses, you should place commas after each clause except the last one:


He thought taking a road trip would help him feel rejuvenated, allow him to work through his feelings, and provide some much needed solitude in which to get his studying done.

  
Example

This example contains a list of adjectives:

She looked longingly through the window at the lovely elegant pearl necklace.


First, identify the list of words: lovely, elegant, and pearl modify necklace. Now confirm that each adjective equally modifies the noun necklace. To do this, insert the word and in between each adjective:

She looked longingly through the window at the lovely and elegant and pearl necklace.

Clearly, the sentence does not make sense with the and between elegant and pearl. Therefore, you should place the commas appropriately:
She looked longingly through the window at the lovely, elegant pearl necklace.

 

 

Rule-2

Use a comma to set off an introductory word, phrase, or clause from the independent clause that follows. Introductory elements that require a comma are prepositional phrases, subordinating clauses, transitional words or phrases, and verbal phrases.
 
A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition and includes any modifiers or objects. Prepositional phrases usually signal a relationship, particularly a relationship of time or location.
 
Example

In the movie Titanic, Leonardo di Caprio’s character Jack dies.

Since the accident last year, she has been afraid to drive on the highway.

 

Both introductory clauses in these examples begin with prepositions. The clauses indicate a relationship of location (In the movie…) and time (Since the accident…) between the introductory phrases and the independent clauses that follow. Therefore, they must be set off by commas.

A subordinating clause begins with a subordinator, which is a word that indicates a relationship—usually a relationship of time or location—between the clause it begins and the independent clause that follows. This relationship makes a subordinating clause similar to a prepositional phrase. However, unlike a prepositional phrase, a subordinating clause can also be referred to as a dependent clause because it has both a subject and a verb. It is a dependent clause, not an independent clause, because it cannot stand alone as a sentence.

 
Example
When I first entered the workforce, we didn’t have all the modern technological conveniences that make today’s business world move at such a rapid pace.

Here the phrase When I first entered the workforce begins with the subordinator When, which signals a time relationship between the subordinating clause and the independent clause that follows. Although this clause has a subject (I) and a verb (entered), it cannot stand alone as a sentence and requires the independent clause to complete the thought. Here is another example:

Before I had a chance to answer, he snatched the paper out of my hands and threw it in the fire.


Here again an introductory subordinating clause requires the independent clause to complete the sentence. In both examples, a comma is required to set off the subordinating clause from the independent clause.

Transitional words and phrases add coherence to your writing. They help connect one sentence to the next. A comprehensive list of transitional words and phrases appears later in this chapter, but here are some of the most commonly used transitions: finally, furthermore, moreover, and next indicate sequence; again, likewise, and similarly indicate comparison; although, but, however, by contrast, and on the other hand indicate contrast; for example, in fact, and specifically indicate examples; accordingly, as a result, consequently, and therefore indicate cause and effect.

 
 
Example
   Dear Employees,
I am writing to tell you about a new incentive program we are beginning here at ABC Company. Specifically, this incentive program will focus on rewarding sales. Our customer base has dropped drastically this year. Consequently, we must look for new ways to increase sales. Although we have offered incentives in the past, this program will be different because it will reward you for improvement in sales rather than for your sales numbers. Furthermore, you will not only be able to earn monetary rewards, but you may also be awarded with extra vacation days.
Happy selling,
Mr. Smith
 
In this example, transitional words and phrases are used to make the text flow more smoothly. A comma is required after each transitional word or phrase.
 
Verbal phrases contain verb elements but function as nouns, adjectives or adverbs rather than verbs. There are two kinds of verbal phrases that can act as introductory phrases and therefore must be set off by commas: participial phrases and infinitive phrases.
 
Participial phrases are made up of a present participle (the –ing form of a verb) or a past participle (the –ed form of a verb) as well as any modifiers or objects. Participial phrases act as adjectives because they describe, or modify, the subject in the independent clause.
 
 
Example

Standing alone by the door, Ricky watched the rest of the boys dance with their dates.

Angered by the kids’ cutting remarks, Naomi stormed out of the room and then burst into tears.

 
The first example contains a participial phrase that contains the present participle Standing. The introductory phrase Standing alone by the door describes Ricky. In the second example, the past participle Angered makes up the participial phrase, and the full introductory phrase describes Naomi.
 
Infinitive phrases are made up of an infinitive as well as any modifiers or objects.
 
 
Example

To win a gold medal, you must work very hard.

To earn a high score on the GRE, you must study this guide thoroughly.


To win is the infinitive in the first sentence, and To earn is the infinitive in the second sentence. Both infinitives serve as part of the introductory phrase, which must be set off by commas.

 

 

Check your work
To find introductory phrases that should be set off with a comma, first look for the subject and verb of the independent clause. Then note any words that precede the subject and verb. Other than articles and adjectives, any words or phrases that precede the subject and verb make up the introductory phrase. You can then confirm this by identifying the introductory phrase.

 
Example
   The strongest qualities of a teacher are patience and understanding.

Here qualities is the subject (don’t be thrown off by of a teacher) and are is the verb. The and strongest precede the subject in this sentence. The is an article and strongest is an adjective, so there is no need for a comma here. Now look at this example:
Knowing that the strongest qualities of a teacher are patience and understanding, Beth highlighted these qualities on her resume.

Here Beth is the subject and highlighted is the verb. The phrase Knowing that the strongest qualities of a teacher are patience and understanding is a participial phrase and therefore should be set off with a comma.Many writers do not place a comma after a short introductory clause.
 
 
Example
   This morning I stopped at the bagel shop for coffee.

Here a comma is acceptable after This morning; however, it is not necessary. You can use your ear to make a decision in cases like these. Often commas may be placed where there would be a pause if the sentence is spoken. When in doubt, however, use a comma.

 

Rule-3

Use a comma to set off nonrestrictive clauses and phrases, clauses and phrases that are not essential in identifying the words they modify. Adjectival clauses and appositives (words that rename a noun) are most often nonrestrictive.

 

​Adjectival clauses are phrases that begin with who, whom, whose, which, that, when, where, or why. In many cases, an adjectival clause is nonrestrictive such as in the following example:

 
Example
The heart, which pumps the body’s blood, is necessary to sustain life.
 
In this sentence, the adjectival clause which pumps the body’s blood is set off by commas because it is not essential to the sentence. The sentence would have the same meaning without the clause. By contrast, the adjectival clause in the next sentence is restrictive because it is necessary to convey the meaning of the sentence:
 
The police who are investigating the murders in Maryland are using geographic profiling to aid in their search for the perpetrator.
 
The adjectival clause who are investigating the murders in Maryland is necessary to provide the reader with full details about the police and the murderer for whom they are searching. Without this phrase, the reader would not know that the police are in Maryland and that they are investigating a murderer.
Appositives act as nouns or noun substitutes by modifying the noun that precedes the appositive. Just as with adjectival clauses, nonrestrictive appositives are set off by commas, whereas restrictive appositives are not.
 
Nonrestrictive Examples

My high school English teacher, Mr. Roper, taught me how to use commas properly.She drove her new car, a Honda Accord, to the senior center to pick up her grandmother.The book club will be meeting this Wednesday to discuss the latest book, Grisham’s Rainmaker.

 

In these examples, the underlined phrases are nonrestrictive appositives, which rename the noun preceding them. These phrases add interesting description to the sentences, but they are not necessary to make the sentences complete and understandable. On the other hand, some appositives are essential to capture the full meaning of the sentence. Such restrictive appositives should not be set off with commas as shown in the following examples:
 
My son Michael is two years old, and my other son Jacob is five months old.Meet me at 6:00 at the new restaurant Vinny’s Vittles that just opened on Main Street.My friend Tammy met me at the beach yesterday.
 

The appositives in these examples are necessary in specifying the subjects. This information is necessary so the reader has a clear understanding of the subject involved in the text.

 
 
Check your work
Review each sentence in your writing. Identify the adjectival phrases and appositives and the nouns they modify. For each adjectival phrase or appositive, ask yourself if the phrase provides important identifying information about the noun, or if it just provides “extra” information. If you are still unsure, read the sentence without the adjectival phrase or appositive. Does the sentence still have its full meaning? If so, set the phrase off with commas. If not, omit the commas.

Rule-4

Use a comma to set off interjections and transitional phrases.

 
Example
An interjection is usually one or two words that interrupt the flow of a sentence and give extra information about the content of the sentence. Although an interjection provides added detail that enhances the reader’s knowledge, generally the information provided by an interjection could be omitted with little or no effect on the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, most interjections should be set off by commas as in the following examples:
 

I could probably take, say, five people in my van for the carpool.

She was, oddly enough, the only one who entered the contest.

I was thinking, by the way, that we could stop by the store on the way home.
 

A transitional phrase directs the flow of an essay. Often, transitional phrases are helpful in leading to a conclusion and therefore should not be set off with commas such as in these two
 
examples:
His strategy was to impress the boss and thus receive the promotion.I was tired and therefore did not want to go to the party.
 
In these examples, the transitional words serve to fully define the meaning of the sentences. There are instances, however, where a transitional word could be omitted without affecting the meaning of the sentence.
Example
I was not confident, however, that he knew the answer.The message when on to say, furthermore, that he would not be coming home for dinner.
 
The transitional words in these examples enhance the text by emphasizing the direction in which the meaning of the sentence is moving. However, the meaning of the sentences would be the same without the transitional words.
 
 
Check your work
To double-check your use of commas with interjections, identify any word or words that interrupt your sentence and have little or no effect to the meaning of the sentence. Set these words off with commas. Next, check for transitional words, keeping in mind the list of common transitional phrases we discussed earlier. Once you have identified the transitional words, ask yourself if the words are necessary to convey the meaning of the sentence. If they are necessary, don’t set them off with commas; if they aren’t, use commas.

Rule-5

Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses.
An independent clause is a group of words that contain both a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence.

 

Example
I drove my car to work. (I is the subject, and drove is the verb.)
 
A coordinating conjunction is a word that serves as a link between a word or group of words. These conjunctions are easy to remember by using the acronym BOYFANS:
But
Or
Yet
For
And
Nor
So
Short, choppy sentences can make your writing tedious to read. To provide some interest and variety to your writing, you will want to join some of the sentences in your essays. To do so, you will need to use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Let’s look at some examples:
Too choppy:
I took a long lunch. I went back to work. I got behind on my work. I had to stay late.
Better:
I took a long lunch, and I went back to work. I got behind on my work, so I had to stay late.
 
 
Too choppy:

My guests were arriving in an hour. I wanted to throw a memorable New Year’s Eve party. I made the punch and hors d’oeuvres ahead of time. I found that I still had a lot to get done to get ready. I decided to put the ice in the punch. Then I discovered that my icemaker was broken. I didn’t have time to go to the store. I wasn’t prepared to serve anything else either. I hurried to the pantry to view my options. All I had were some tea bags. I decided to throw a New Year’s Eve tea party instead.


Better:
My guests were arriving in an hour, and I wanted to throw a memorable New Year’s Eve party. I made the punch and hors d’oeuvres ahead of time, yet I found that I still had a lot to get done to get ready. I decided to put the ice in the punch, but then I discovered that my icemaker was broken. I didn’t have time to go to the store, nor was I prepared to serve anything else. I hurried to the pantry to view my options. All I had were some tea bags, so I decided to throw a New Year’s Eve tea party instead.
 
In both examples, combining sentences with commas and conjunctions make them more interesting and easier to read. We will learn more ways to create interest in your writing when we discuss writing style later on. For now, let’s make sure we can apply Rule 5 correctly.
 
 
Check your work
To properly combine two independent clauses with a comma and a conjunction, you must check to make sure that the clauses joined by the comma and conjunction are indeed independent clauses. To do this, first find all the conjunctions. Then look at the clauses on either side of each conjunction. Does each clause have a subject and a verb? Can each clause stand alone as sentences? If so, the conjunction is properly placed and a comma should precede the conjunction.
 

Example
Incorrect:
We went to the mall last night, and bought some new dresses for work.
 
 
Correct:
We went to the mall last night and bought some new dresses for work.
 
 
Correct:
We went to the mall last night, and Terri bought some new dresses for work.
In the first example, and is the conjunction. We went to the mall last night is an independent clause (we is the subject, went is the verb). However, bought some new dresses for work is not an independent clause because there is no subject. Therefore, the sentence can be corrected by simply omitting the comma as seen in the second example. Or, if there is a possible subject for the sentence, it can be added and the comma can stay as seen in the third example. Here is another example where the same guidelines apply:
 
 
Incorrect:
He committed the crime, but didn’t think the judge’s ruling was fair.
Correct:
He committed the crime but didn’t think the judge’s ruling was fair.
Correct:
He committed the crime, but he didn’t think the judge’s ruling was fair.
Using a semicolon is another way to correctly join two independent clauses, and we will discuss it next.
 





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