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Demystifying Comma Usage

Updated on January 19, 2015

Samuel Johnson



As an English composition instructor for twelve years, I can say with some authority that the comma is the most difficult piece of punctuation for students to master; however, the semicolon runs a close second. The problem with the comma isn’t that it is difficult, but that very few of us take the time to understand the rules that govern its use. I have even known tenured professors of English who had a weak grasp of comma usage and didn’t bother to read the textbook they taught from, so it is no surprise that their students were not enlightened as to the proper usage of the comma.

Understanding comma usage requires the student to be aware of two things: English is not a single language, and English usage rules don’t make sense. English is three languages that have been fused together. English has a Germanic syntax, a French vocabulary, and Latin usage rules.

When the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded England around the year 450, they brought their language with them. This became the base upon which English was built. Most small words like hand, the, of, and bean are Anglo-Saxon in origin.

The Anglo-Saxon period ended in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated Harold at the second Battle of Hastings. Once again the invaders brought their language with them. The nobles spoke French while the serfs spoke English. Over time the two languages fused together to produce early modern English. This is why English often has two words for things. For example, Ham is the Anglo-Saxon word, and Pork is the French word. Roughly seventy percent of the words in the English language are French in origin.

The last fusion that English underwent occurred around 1755. Samuel Johnson, among others, decided that English needed a grammar; however, Johnson had just spent the previous nine years compiling his English dictionary, so he wasn’t too crazy about the idea of spending another decade working out grammar rules for English with his contemporaries, so they all agreed to use Latin usage rules for English. It made sense at the time since most educated people knew Latin. As a result, the comma usage rules students struggle to understand are actually intended for a foreign language, Latin, and don’t necessarily make sense for English.


Before a discussion of the rules can take place, it is important to understand the vocabulary of the English language. When I taught English composition, I began each class by reviewing vocabulary. My students wouldn’t understand why I was boring them with the vocabulary of the English language, which is a step that most English instructors fail to do in their classes. The reason is quite simple. Without understanding the vocabulary, directions like “Use a comma to separate the dependent clause from the independent clause in a complex sentence only when the dependent clause comes first.”are meaningless if the reader doesn’t know how to identify a dependent clause or an independent clause in a sentence.

Adjective - describes a noun.
Adverb - describes a verb.
Clause - a group of related words that contain a verb and form a thought.
Coordinating Conjunction - one of these seven words: for, or, nor, yet, but, and, so. These words are used to join sentences together into compound sentences.
Dependent Clause or Phrase - a group of related words that do not contain a verb, but do express a thought.
Independent Clause - another way of saying complete sentence.
Tag - a short clause used to identify the speaker in dialogue.

The Rules

Below are the ten most abused comma rules I’ve encountered in my essay grading.

1) Compound Sentence
Place a comma in front of the coordinating conjunction which separates the two halves of a compound sentence.

[independent clause] [,] [coordinating conjunction] [independent clause.]

The boy kissed the girl, so the girl slapped the boy.

2) Complex Sentence
Use a comma to separate the dependent clause from the independent clause in a complex sentence only when the dependent clause comes first. There are many varieties of this type of sentence.

[dependent clause] [,] independent clause.]

When the boy kissed the girl, the girl slapped the boy.
Wanting to be alone, the boy ran away.
To be nice, the girl said she was sorry.

[independent clause][dependent clause]

The girl held the boy’s hand to show she cared.

3) Items in a Series
Use a comma to separate items in a series. The items being separated can be nouns, verbs, or short phrases. There is no limit to the number of items in a series; however, there must be a comma in front of the “and” before the last item. If one or more of the items being separated contains a comma, then use a semicolon. The comma in front of the “and” is not optional.

[item 1][,][item 2] . . . [,][and][item x]

The boy bought the girl flowers, candy, and balloons.

4) Compound Adjectives
Use a comma to separate two adjectives that modify the same noun. To determine if two adjectives are compound, first see if the adjectives can be reversed, then see if the word “and” can be inserted between them.

The giant smelly rat scared the boy. The dedicated fax line rang all night.
The smelly giant rat scared the boy. The fax dedicated line rang all night.
The giant and smelly rat scared the boy. The dedicated and fax line rang all night.
Yes No

[adjective 1][,][adjective 2][noun]

The giant, smelly rat scared the boy.

5) Nonessential Elements
Use a comma to set apart an appositive or other nonessential elements of a sentence.

[1st part of independent clause][,][appositive][,][2nd part of independent clause]

The girl, a concert violinist, paid for the boy’s lunch.

6) Addresses
Use a comma to separate the street from the city and the city from the state in an address. Never place a comma between the state and the zip code.

[street address][,][city][,][state][zip]

123 Easy Street, Anytown, FL 32803

7) Introductory Words
Use a comma to separate an introductory word or phrase.

[introductory word][,][independent clause.]

Wow, that dog ate a whole pizza.

8) Contrasting information
Use a comma to separate contrasting statements. The contrasting appositive may appear in the beginning of the sentence, or it may appear at the end.

[1st part of independent clause][,][appositive][,][2nd part of independent clause]

It was Jason, not Athena, who ate the ice cream.

[independent clause][,][contrasting appositive.]

You’re done watching the movie, right?

Use a comma to separate quoted material from non-quoted material. If the tag line appears between two quotes, use a period instead of a comma between the tag and the second quote, otherwise, you’ll have a comma splice.


“Hi,” she said.
He said, “Hi yourself.”
“Wow,” she said. “That was fun.”

10) Correspondence
Use a comma in the salutation of a personal letter or email. Use a colon if it is a business letter. Use a comma after the complementary close in both personal and professional letters.

[salutation][,][name] [complementary close][,]

Dear, Jason Sincerely,

Unfortunately, the only way to become truly proficient with the use of the comma is to practice with the rules. There are several Online Writing Labs, OWL’s, that provide additional explanations and comma usage work sheets. Remember, beginning writers tend to over use the comma. Before using that comma, ask yourself if there is a rule that requires its use. If not, then don’t use the comma. Comma rules may be arbitrary and ill-fitting for English, but they are the rules writers must cling to in order to communicate clearly.


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