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How To Use Commas - Comma Rules

Updated on April 1, 2015

Commas, you either love them or hate them! If you know how to use them, they can be a pleasure to work with. If, however, you have no clue, they can be pesky little things that you wished didn't exist. Commas can be difficult for some because there are some rules that govern their usage. These rules are pretty simple and all it takes is a bit of patience in understanding what they are and how they work. People often come to the erroneous conclusion that commas aren't really that important in the wider scheme of things. They do look pretty insignificant, don't they? However, commas play a crucial role in guiding the reader. Improper use of commas can confuse the reader. It is therefore important that you know the various comma rules. In this article, I would touch upon some comma rules.


Some Comma Rules With Explanations & Examples:

FANBOYS - When I think about commas, this mnemonic is the first to crop up. As you can see, this mnemonic is easy to remember. It stands for F - for; A - and; N - not; B - but; O - or; Y - yet; and S - so. These are of course what are referred to as coordinating conjunctions.

These coordinating conjunctions can join words, phrases or clauses. We should be interested in independent clauses that are separated by any of these conjunctions. Before we proceed further, let us discuss what independent clauses are? Well, an independent clause basically has a subject and verb and therefore can stand on its own (i.e. independent). In other words, it conveys a complete thought on its own. Let us study the following example.

Example: She wanted to buy a new car, but she did not have enough money.

In the above example, there are two independent clauses "She wanted to buy a new car" and "She did not have enough money" - both separated by the coordinating conjunction "but." Each clause in the above example expresses a complete thought and hence you can use a comma before the coordinating conjunction "but."

HINT: If you remove the coordinating conjunction "but" in the above example and put a period instead, you get two complete independent clauses, which both convey complete thoughts, i.e.

a) She wanted to buy a new car.

b) She did not have enough money.

Hence you can use a coordinating conjunction to join both of these.

Now, suppose, the second clause had the subject missing, i.e. "she." The sentence would now read as - She wanted to buy a new car but did not have enough money.

In this case, the second clause is not an independent clause but a dependent one, i.e. it depends on the first clause to derive complete meaning. Hence, in this instance, you cannot use a comma.

So, in conclusion, use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of the FANBOYS coordinating conjunctions.

The Introductory Comma:

Words such as "yes," "well," and "however," are introductory words. A few examples of these would be:

a) Well, I finally decided to write this hub.

b) However, he was quite pleased with the results.

c) Yes, that would be an accurate description of the picture.

Use commas to separate a city from the state:

Example 1: Jenna lives in Bakersfield, California.

Example 2: Jenna lived in Fresno, California, for 12 years.

Example 3: Jenna lived in Fresno, CA for 12 years.

Use commas to set off non-essential clauses, phrases or words that interrupt the flow:

Example 1: Dogs, on the other hand, are obedient and loyal pets.

In the above example, "on the other hand," is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Hence, you would set it off with commas. You would note that if you leave out "on the other hand" in the above example, the sentence still makes complete sense. Also, you'd note that the non-essential part interrupts the flow of the sentence. Another example would be:

Example 2: This Wednesday, which also happens to be my birthday, is the only day I am free until next Thursday.

In the above example, "which also happens to be my birthday" is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and should be set off with commas. If you read the sentence without the set-off part, it makes perfect and complete sense.

Use commas to separate a series of three or more words, clauses, phrases, letters or figures.

Example 1: I like apples, grapes, oranges and peaches.

Example 2: On Sunday, I played basketball, played soccer, saw a movie and went out for dinner.

Note: You may have noticed that I have dropped the last series comma, i.e. before the "and" in both examples. I've done so because some style manuals prefer that the last comma in a series be dropped - either preceding 'and' or 'or.' However, personally, I don't think this is a big deal.

Use commas to separate a series of adjectives (i.e. words that describe a noun)

Example 1: He is an intelligent, handsome man.

In the example above, "intelligent" and "handsome" are adjectives.

Exception to the rule:

If an adjective is modifying another adjective, you cannot use a comma between them. Now, this may be difficult to figure out for some, but you can remember this easily this way. Just remove the comma between the adjectives and read the sentence with the word "and" instead. Secondly, reverse the order of the adjectives and read the sentence. If after doing both, the sentence make sense, you can use commas to separate them. If it doesn't make sense, do not use commas to separate them.

The above example with the word "and" added instead of the comma.

He is an intelligent and handsome man. (makes sense)

The above example with the adjectives reversed.

He is a handsome and intelligent man. (makes sense)

Example 2: He wore a bright red shirt.

If we put "and" between the two adjectives here, the sentence reads:

He wore a bright and red shirt. (doesn't make sense - 'bright red' is the color, not 'bright' and 'red.'

If we reverse the order of the adjectives, the sentence reads:

He wore a red and bright shirt. (again doesn't make sense - changes meaning)

Use commas to separate contrasting parts of a sentence:

Example: This is my car, not yours.

Use a comma if a sentence starts with a weak clause followed by a strong clause. Do not use a comma if a sentence starts with a strong clause followed by a weak clause.

If you have any questions about this hub, let me know.

Let me know if you have any questions about this hub.


Well, that's about all for now. I haven't been able to cover all the comma rules. However, I believe I have covered a significant number of them!!


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