What is a comma?

If this tricky punctuation mark gives you pause, shake away that fear by learning a few simple tips and tricks for the humble comma. 

Taylor Hartley

Taylor Hartley

January 16, 2024

What is a comma?

If this tricky punctuation mark gives you pause, shake away that fear by learning a few simple tips and tricks for the humble comma. 

Taylor Hartley
Author Taylor Hartley

Jan 16, 2024

What is a comma?

If this tricky punctuation mark gives you pause, shake away that fear by learning a few simple tips and tricks for the humble comma. 

Taylor Hartley

Taylor Hartley

Jan 16, 2024

Key takeaways

  • Commas are very versatile – Commas function in various ways, which can make learning how to use them a little tricky.
  • They are essential for comprehension – A single comma can change the meaning of a sentence, so use them with care.
  • Commas are more than just a pause – While implying a pause is an important job for some commas, there is much more to consider when placing a comma.

Many people pale in the face of commas, an often misused and misunderstood punctuation mark. Visions of red ink-stained grammar assignments with those little curvy marks scattered seemingly at random haunt many people for years afterward. 

However, with a little thought and knowledge about a handful of rules, the logic and functionality of the dreaded comma becomes clear. Once you grasp a few concepts, you’ll be using commas like it’s second nature, making your writing more fluid and engaging.

What is a comma?

Commas are multiple-purpose punctuation marks that look like little tick marks situated at the feet of your words. They perform many different jobs and can change the meanings of sentences and phrases. 

Generally, commas indicate a little break in a sentence as compared to full stops, which signal the end of a sentence. As a result, commas often occur where native English speakers would pause when reading a sentence, but this isn’t a guarantee. 

You’re better off knowing the specific reason why you would use a comma rather than relying on where you’d pause as an indicator of where to place a comma.

When do you use a comma?

Commas wear all sorts of hats, so to speak, meaning they do all kinds of jobs. Most of these roles involve separating words to make more complex sentences easier to read and understand. Some of the most common uses of commas are:

  • Separating elements of a list 
  • Ending an introductory element 
  • Connecting two independent clauses in a sentence 
  • Separating names or titles used to address someone or something
  • Indicating nonrestrictive elements and appositives 
  • Setting apart parenthetical elements and other “interrupting” phrases
  • Separating adjectives of equal importance 
  • Punctuating quotations

Separate elements of a list

If you find yourself typing a text message listing out what someone needs to grab from the store, you’ll likely need quite a few commas in there. For any list of three or more items, you need to place a comma between each item. 

For example: I need some potatoes, garlic, yogurt, and one dozen eggs. 

As you can see, there’s a comma between each item in that list. Note the comma before the “and” as well. That specific comma is called the Oxford comma because of the style guide that popularized its use. 

The Oxford comma is considered optional, and you’ll likely see plenty of situations where people don’t include it. For instance, in British English, you’ll likely never see that particular comma. 

But the Oxford comma (or the serial comma as it’s called sometimes) is often needed for clarity, so you might use it just in case. Since commas do so many jobs, a missing Oxford comma might confuse readers into thinking the other commas in the list are indicating something else. 

For example: I went to the movies with my pets, Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury. 

Without the Oxford comma between Elvis and Freddie, the reader might confuse the comma after “pets” as a sign that what comes after is what’s called an appositive, a renaming of something. If you leave out the Oxford comma, you could accidentally be calling Elvis Presley and Freddie Mercury my pets, which neither would appreciate very much. 

Usage will vary depending on style and where you are writing, but the Oxford comma could be a good fit for the sake of clarity.

End an introductory element

Some sentences start with a clause or a phrase that sort of “sets the stage” for the rest of the sentence by establishing the time and/or place of the events of the sentence. If this information is phrased in a specific way, it’s considered a fronted adverbial and will need a comma after it. 

For example: Before you leave school, make sure you have everything you need. 

As you can see, the “before” signals a “time” that contextualizes the next part of the sentence about gathering up belongings. You may also notice that if you read the sentence aloud, you will likely pause after the word “school,” which is another indicator you would need a comma here. 

Now, not all phrases that set up time and place at the start of the sentence will need a comma. This can be a little tricky, so a good way of determining if the phrase or clause needs a comma after it is to try moving it to the end of the sentence. 

If the sentence still makes sense after moving the phrase, you likely need to put a comma after it if it begins the sentence. Let’s try this with the example from earlier.

For example: Make sure you have everything you need before you leave school. 

As you can see, that rearrangement makes perfect sense, and you may also notice that you read that sentence without a short pause. That’s because this order of the sentence follows a more “natural” order of how English sentences like to be written. 

When writers want to vary from the standard way of writing sentences in English, commas are often used.

Connect two independent clauses in a sentence

In short, an independent clause is a group of words with both a subject and a verb that could be a complete sentence on its own.

For instance, “I love cake” is an independent clause because the subject “I” and the verb “love” make a complete thought together. They can be perfectly happy on their own as a self-contained sentence. 

Sometimes, you might want to lump two closely-related independent clauses into one sentence. 

For example, “I love cake” and “chocolate is my favourite” are both about the same topic and would make sense together in the same sentence. However, you cannot just smoosh them together and call it a day. 

To combine two independent clauses into a sentence, you need to add a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so [FANBOYS, as a handy acronym]) and a comma. 

For example: I love cake, and chocolate is my favourite. 

Be careful, though, because not every “and” or “but” will need a comma before it. This rule applies only to instances where what comes before and after the comma and coordinating conjunction could be a sentence on its own. 

For example: I love making cake and eating it. 

Notice how there’s no comma before the “and” there. That’s because “eating it” is not an independent clause. There’s no word there to function as the subject. We just have the verb. Before adding a comma, check to make sure both sides of the sentence could be sentences on their own.

Separate a name from the rest of the sentence

This rule is a bit simpler than the last one, fortunately. If you have a sentence where you are using a name or a title to talk to someone directly, you separate that name or title from the rest of the sentence with commas. 

For example: Boss, would you hand me that hammer? 

            You, Julia, are the most amazing artist. 

In both of those sentences, we are talking directly to “Boss” and “Julia” and saying that name or title as a way of calling attention to them. We are talking “to” them rather than “about” them. Since “Julia” comes in the middle of the sentence, there are commas on either side of the name. 

Again, be careful with this one. A name doesn’t automatically need commas. If you are talking about someone and you use their name as part of the sentence, you will not need commas. 

For example: Esteban is such an awesome guy. 

We’re talking “about” Esteban there, not “to” him. Thus, we don’t need any commas around the name. 

Show nonrestrictive elements and appositives/noun phrases

Nonrestrictive elements are bits of extra information that don’t specify what you’re talking about in a sentence. In other words, once you identify exactly who or what you are talking about, any more descriptions or modifiers can be nonrestrictive. 

When you drop this information into the sentence without making it a new clause, you set it off with commas to let the reader know the information is nonrestrictive. 

For example: My best friend, who is wonderful, makes the best coffee. 

The phrase “who is wonderful” isn’t necessary information since the sentence identifies who we are talking about, the speaker’s best friend. But, there are times when information like this is necessary or restrictive. 

For example: The movie that Bob recommended was actually pretty good. 

There are no commas around “that Bob recommended” because that information is necessary to identify which movie the speaker is talking about. However, if we make the beginning of the sentence more specific, that phrase can become nonrestrictive. 

For example: Top Gun, the movie Bob recommended, was actually pretty good. 

Now that the movie has been specified, the fact that Bob recommended it is just extra information, which means you place commas around it. 

Appositives or noun phrases are a type of nonrestrictive element that function to specifically rename something in a sentence. 

For example: My boss, Jasmine, sends too many emails. 

“Jasmine” renames “boss,” making it an appositive, and since we can assume that the speaker has only one boss, the name isn’t necessary to specify who the speaker is referring to.

Set apart parenthetical elements and “interrupting” phrases

Like the nonrestrictive information rule, this rule deals with unrelated comments, off-hand remarks, and other exclamations that don’t factor into the core meaning of the sentence. 

Think about information you might put in parenthesis, hence the term “parenthetical element.” For these elements, imagine stepping outside of the main idea of the sentence to make a comment and then stepping back into the main idea to continue. Commas show where you “step out” to make these comments. 

For example: You, with all due respect, have no idea what you are talking about. 

“With all due respect” doesn’t function within the grammar of the sentence nor is it important to what the sentence is about. Since it’s parenthetical, you separate it from the rest of the sentence with commas. 

This logic also applies to interjections and exclamations that you might add to a sentence for emotion or emphasis. 

For example: Wow, that sandwich was amazing!

“Wow” serves no grammatical purpose in the sentence. It’s simply a word to convey the excitement the speaker is feeling. These sorts of words are also set off by commas to clarify that they are not part of the main idea of the sentence.

Separate “equal” or coordinate adjectives

When you need to incorporate two or more adjectives in front of a noun, if those adjectives are of equal importance, you include a comma between them. 

Coordinate adjectives like this can be written in any order without changing the meaning of the sentence, and the commas signal to the reader that this is the case. 

For example: The beautiful, cheerful, glorious horse galloped across the field. 

Here the three adjectives before horse are all of equal importance, meaning that they could go in any order. Determining whether adjectives are of equal rank or not can be somewhat subjective, so writers need to use their own discretion at times. 

However, there are moments when certain adjectives are more relevant, and in these moments, the more important adjectives should be placed closest to the noun they are modifying. 

For example: The greasy pizza box needs to be tossed out. 

Here, “pizza” is a more relevant detail to the sentence and for identifying the box, so the two adjectives are not considered coordinate. This means you don’t include any commas between them. 

Punctuate quotation marks

When writing dialogue or incorporating quotes into your writing, commas are helpful for visually organizing that information. When a quote is preceded or followed by a dialogue tag or attribution tag, you use a comma. 

A dialogue tag is simply a phrase indicating who said something, and these phrases can come before, after, or even in the middle of the quote. 

For example: Lucy said, “You’ll never guess what happened today.” 

                        “I want a cookie,” Robert said. 

             “You, my friend,” retorted Billy, “are in deep trouble.” 

Notice how the commas divide the quoted material from the rest of the sentence on all available sides. The first example just has one comma since the quote ends the sentence, but the third example has two commas, one before the dialogue tag, and one after. 

Explore commas with DoodleEnglish

DoodleEnglish is an app that’s filled with thousands of fun, interactive exercises covering grammar, punctuation, spelling and more!

Designed by teachers, it creates each child a unique work programme tailored to their needs, boosting their confidence and skills in English. Try it for free today!

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FAQs about commas

When the “and” comes between two independent clauses, you should place a comma before it. 

Commas serve many different functions, but they mainly work to separate parts of a sentence and to indicate slight pauses in the flow of a sentence. 

If you don’t have a specific reason to use a comma and if you haven’t seen other people use commas in similar situations, you should likely avoid using a comma there. Misplaced commas can make sentences more confusing and make the writing look less professional. 

The best way to remember comma rules is to practice. Write often, and double-check the rules before placing a comma. Also, when you’re reading and notice a comma, stop and try to figure out why that comma is there. If you’re not sure, look it up!

Screenshot 2023-10-13 at 16.29.14

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