Comma Usage

To separate the elements in a series.

A comma is used to separate the elements listed in a series of three or more things. A comma should go between each element in the series, with the exception of the final two elements. That comma, often called the serial comma or an Oxford comma, is optional. This comma might be optional, but your usage concerning it should be consistent.

Correct: I wrote about friendship, romance, and hurt.

Correct: I wrote about friendship, romance and hurt.

Incorrect: I wrote about friendship romance and hurt.

To connect two independent clauses.

A comma, along with a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so), is used to connect two independent clauses. A comma should go before the conjunction that separates the two independent clauses. A comma is not necessary if one of the clauses is independent and the other is dependent.

Correct: I wrote about friendship, and I used a pencil.

Incorrect: I wrote about friendship and, I used a pencil.

Incorrect: I wrote about friendship, and used a pencil.

To set off introductory elements.

A comma is used to set off introductory elements from the remainder of the sentence. In certain circumstances, a comma would not be necessary if the introductory element is brief. At times, the use of a comma in this type of situation is dependent on the writer’s style and the flow of the sentence.

Correct: Despite writer’s block, I managed to write one thousand words.

Incorrect: Despite writer’s block I managed to write one thousand words.

To set off parenthetical elements.

A comma is used to set off a parenthetical element, which is a part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes, it can be tricky to identify if a part of the sentence truly is a parenthetical element or not.

Correct: I wrote about romance, all night long, to better understand him.

Incorrect: I wrote about romance all night long to better understand him.

Incorrect: I wrote about, romance and, friendship to understand him.

When they are mentioned together, a city’s name and state or a city’s name and country are considered to be parenthetical elements.

Correct: I wrote about Los Angeles, California, in my story.

Correct: I wrote about London, England, in my story.

Incorrect: I wrote about London, England in my story.

To separate coordinate adjectives.

A comma is used to separate coordinate adjectives, which are descriptive words that work together to modify another word. If you were to put an “and” or “but in between the adjectives and the sentence would still make sense, a comma likely belongs between the adjectives in your phrase. If an “and” or “but” would not make sense, a comma likely does not belong between the adjectives in your phrase.

Correct: My character went to the fancy, expensive store to buy milk.

Incorrect: The old, gray house was featured in my story.

To set off quoted elements.

A comma is used to set off quoted elements from the remainder of the sentence that explains or introduces the quotation, which includes dialogue.

Correct: “I wrote a book,” she said, “about friendship and romance.”

Correct: “I wrote a book,” she said. “It was about friendship and romance.”

Incorrect: “I wrote a book,” she said, “It was about friendship and romance.”

Incorrect: “I wrote a book”, she said “about friendship and romance.”

A comma is not used to set off quoted elements that are embedded in the sentence.

Correct: She wrote about things like “Romance” and “Friendship.”

Incorrect: She wrote about things like, “Romance,” and “Friendship.”

To set off phrases that express contrast.

A comma is used to set off phrases that express contrast. However, if you are using the conjunction “but,” it is optional to use a comma to set off phrases that express contrast.

Correct: I wrote about romance, not betrayal.

Incorrect: I wrote about romance not betrayal.

To separate a date and the year.

A comma is used to separate a date and the year.

Correct: December 25, 2000

Incorrect: December, 25, 2000

To separate a name and the title.

A comma is used to separate a name and the title.

Correct: John Smith, Editor at Large

Incorrect: John Smith Editor at Large

More information about comma usage

Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar Girl

This article was adapted from:

Rules for Comma Usage

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