Using Commas

The Rules for Using Commas

Commas are dividers. They are used to divide long texts into shorter, single-function sections. The main job of commas is to make text easier to read by showing the boundaries of words, phrases, and clauses with specific grammatical roles in your sentence.

The secret to using commas accurately is understanding what parts of a sentence are supposed to be grouped by commas. As we will cover, there are 10 ways to use commas.

Table of Contents

  • 10 Ways to Use Commas
  • Use of Commas Explained in Detail
  • (1) Using a Comma after "Setting the Scene"
  • (2) Using a Comma after a Transitional Phrase (e.g, "However," "As a result")
  • (3) Using a Comma after an Interjection
  • (4) Using a Comma before a Conjunction
  • (5) Using Commas for Parentheses
  • (6) Using Commas in Lists
  • (7) Using a Comma after a Long Subject
  • (8) Using Commas in Numbers
  • (9) Using a Comma before Speech Marks
  • (10) Using Commas with the Vocative Case
  • Test Time!
rules for using commas

10 Ways to Use Commas

Mastering commas is an essential part of becoming a competent writer. There is no generic rule that covers how to use commas. In other words, you cannot learn a simple rule like "a comma is used for a slight break." There are, in fact, 10 ways to use commas.

(1) After setting the scene at the start of a sentence.

For example:
  • Now that I am older, I understand. correct tick

(2) After a phrase like "however," "consequently," or "as a result."

For example:
  • As a result, I now understand. correct tick

(3) After an interjection (e.g., an expression of joy or surprise).

For example:
  • Wow, I see your point. correct tick

(4) Before a conjunction (e.g., "and," "but") that joins two "sentences."

For example:
  • I like cake, and I like cheese. correct tick

(5) As parentheses around additional information (i.e., like brackets).

For example:
  • Janet and John Baxter, who live next door, adore cakes. correct tick

(6) To separate list items.

For example:
  • bread, milk, and cheese correct tick (small American flag)
  • bread, milk and cheese correct tick (small British flag)

(7) After a long subject if it helps the reader.

For example:
  • A, B, C, and D, are required to bake this cake. correct tick

(8) In numbers.

For example:
  • 3,213 correct tick

(9) With direct address (also called "the vocative case").

For example:
  • I know your auntie, John. correct tick

(10) Before a quotation.

For example:
  • She said, "I understand." correct tick

Use of Commas Explained in Detail

This section explains when to use commas in more detail and gives examples for each type of comma usage.

Comma? Take a Breath

At school, many of us were taught that a comma is where you take a breath. This is fairly good advice when you're reading someone else's work aloud. However, it is terrible advice when you're thinking about where to put commas in your own work.

The ten rules for using commas are listed above and detailed below. The idea that you should put a comma whenever you want your reader to take a breath is wrong.

That's a reading technique not a writing technique.

(1) Using a Comma after "Setting the Scene"

using commas after a fronted adverb
It is quite common for a sentence to start with words which "set the scene." These words usually state a place, a time, a condition, or a fact before the main part of the sentence. Words that "set the scene" at the start of a sentence are usually followed by a comma. You do not have to use a comma; i.e., it is not a strict ruling. It's just a common style. However, as it will help your reader, it is a useful style to adopt. For example:
  • In Paris, they simply stared when I spoke to them in French. correct tick
  • (sets a place)
  • At exactly 4 o'clock, two of the kidnappers re-entered the room. correct tick
  • (sets a time)
  • If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else. correct tick (Author Laurence J. Peter)
  • (sets a condition)
  • As you were born here, it makes sense for my group to take the map. correct tick
  • (states a fact)
Often, the words that "set the scene" are a little harder to spot:
  • When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work , ask him "Whose?" (Journalist Don Marquis)
  • (sets a time)
These "scene setting" words (or adverbial clauses or adverbial phrases as they're really called) vary hugely. You do not have to use a comma after an adverbial clause or phrase, but a comma will make it clear where the main clause starts. When an adverbial clause or phrase is very short (e.g., Nowadays, Now, Yesterday, Today), you are safer to omit the comma. For example:
  • When I was a boy, I was told that anybody could become President. Now I'm beginning to believe it. correct tick (American lawyer Clarence Darrow)
  • (First "scene setting" adverb – comma used. Second "scene setting" adverb – no comma required)
When an adverbial clause or phrase is at the end of a sentence, there is usually no need for a comma before it. When it is in the middle of a sentence, you should use commas (i.e., one at the start and one at the end) if you think the commas will help the reader. For example:
  • Two of the kidnappers re-entered the room at exactly 4 o'clock. correct tick
  • Two of the kidnappers, at exactly 4 o'clock, re-entered the room. correct tick
Read more about using a comma after setting the scene.

(2) Using a Comma after a Transitional Phrase (e.g, "However," "As a result")

using a comma after a conjunctive adverb like however
A transitional phrase is a term like However, Consequently, Therefore, and As a result. (There are others, but these are the most common.) A transitional phrase sits at the start of a sentence and acts like a bridge to an idea in the previous sentence. A transitional phrase is usually followed by a comma. For example:
  • John has eaten at least two cakes a day for the last decade. As a result, he has been placed in a high-risk group for diabetes. correct tick
  • I think. Therefore, I am. correct tick (French philosopher Rene Descartes)
  • All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. correct tick (Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw)
  • Orthodox medicine has not found an answer to your complaint. However, luckily for you, I happen to be a quack. correct tick
A transitional phrase (or conjunctive_adverb as you will hear them called) is never preceded by a comma. You can, on occasion, precede it with a semicolon (or a dash replacing a semicolon), but never a comma. That's called a run-on error.

Read more about using a comma after a transitional phrase.

(3) Using a Comma after an Interjection

using commas after interjections
An interjection is usually a short word inserted into a sentence to express an emotion or feeling. Expressions such as yes, phew, and indeed are examples of interjections. Often, an interjection sits at the start of the sentence but not always. It is normal to offset an interjection with a comma (or commas if it's in the middle of the sentence). In the examples below, the interjections are shaded:
  • Oh great, the boiler's broken down. correct tick
  • Yes, that's three out of three. correct tick
  • I understand your predicament, but, crikey, there is nothing we can do. correct tick
Note: If the interjection is to express a powerful emotion or feeling (and it's not in the middle of your sentence), then it can be followed by an exclamation mark.

Read more about using a comma after an interjection.

(4) Using a Comma before a Conjunction

using commas before and and but
Words like and, or, and but are known as conjunctions. (There are other conjunctions, but these three are the most common.)

When a conjunction joins two standalone sentences (or independent clauses), it is usual to place a comma before it. For example (conjunctions shaded):
  • Lee can sing, and he can dance correct tick
  • (Here, the conjunction and is joining two standalone sentences: "Lee can sing." + "He can dance.")
  • Lee can sing, and dance
  • (Here, the conjunction and is not joining two standalone sentences. The words "and dance" are not a standalone sentence. This is just a list of things that Lee can do. This section is not about using commas in lists. That is covered below and in the lesson Using Commas in Lists.)
Here are some real examples:
  • No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch. correct tick (American author Leo Buscaglia)
  • When you have got an elephant by the hind leg, and he is trying to run away, it's best to let him run. (US President Abraham Lincoln)
  • ("When you have got an elephant by the hind leg" is not a standalone sentence.)
Read more about using a comma before a conjunction.
Read about the Oxford Comma.

(5) Using Commas for Parentheses

using commas like brackets or parentheses
We all know that additional information (such as an explanation or an afterthought) can be offset with brackets. However, brackets are just one of the choices you have. You can also use commas or dashes. The information which is offset by commas, brackets, or dashes is called a parenthesis. The punctuation marks used to offset a parenthesis (i.e., dashes, brackets, or commas) are called parentheses.

Examples (with each example of parenthesis shaded):
  • The case has, in some respects, been not entirely devoid of interest. correct tick
  • At 4 o'clock yesterday, David Frost, a cleaner from the Lakes Estate, was charged with "dog napping" his former headmaster's poodle. correct tick
  • Joanne Baxter, who originally appeared as a witness, has been found guilty of handling stolen goods. correct tick
  • (Note: When a parenthesis starts with who or which (i.e., a relative pronoun), you should look to use commas as opposed to brackets or dashes. This is not a 100% rule, but commas are far more common when the parenthesis starts with a relative pronoun.)
Commas are often more suitable for formal writing than brackets, as brackets can make your work look a little unorganized. Also, commas are often preferable to dashes because dashes are quite stark. The disadvantage of using commas as parentheses is they can be easily confused with other commas in the sentence because — as you can see from this page — commas have lots of uses.

Read more about using commas to replace brackets.

(6) Using Commas in Lists

using commas in lists
When writing a list in "sentence form" (i.e., not as bullet points), it is normal to separate the list items using commas. For example:
  • Fish, chips, and peas correct tick
The big question is whether there needs to be a comma before the conjunction (in this example, the word and). Unfortunately, there is no simple rule for this.

The first part of the rule is easy enough: when there are just two items in a list, there is no need to use a comma between them.
  • Fish and chips correct tick
However, you can use a comma if you think it helps your reader.
  • The Bakerloo Line runs between Harrow and Wealdstone, and Elephant and Castle. correct tick
When there are more than two list items in a list, then those following "US convention" should use a comma before the conjunction (usually and or or), and those following "UK convention" shouldn't. Therefore:
  • Fish, chips, and peas correct tick ()
  • Fish, chips and peas correct tick (small British flag)
Unfortunately, it gets a little more complicated than that. The comma before the conjunction is known as an Oxford Comma, and it is condoned by lots of individuals and organizations in the UK, and it is avoided by a few individuals and organizations in the US. Therefore:
  • Fish, chips, and peas correct tick (small British flag) (This is correct if you're an advocate for the Oxford Comma.)
The bottom line is you should follow whatever convention those around you (e.g., your company seniors) follow. If there is no guidance like that, then follow whatever convention you like — but be consistent. If you have to break that convention for the sake of clarity, then have the confidence to do it. Clarity trumps style every single time.

Read more about using commas in lists.

(7) Using a Comma after a Long Subject

using commas after long subjects
When the subject of a sentence is made up of lots of elements, it is known as a compound subject. For example:
  • Janet is popular.
  • (This is a normal subject (i.e., not a compound one). The subject has one element: Janet.)
  • Janet and John are popular.
  • (This is a compound subject because it has two elements: Janet and John.)
  • The large gorilla is popular.
  • (This is a normal subject. It has one element: The large gorilla.)
  • The large gorilla with the bright blue eyes and the albino lion cub with piercing pink eyes are popular.
  • (This is a compound subject with two elements.)
In the last example, the compound subject is starting to get quite long. When a subject starts getting complicated, some writers like to show the end of the subject with a comma. Be aware that this is not a popular practice among many grammarians, but if you think it helps your reader, you can do it. For example:
  • Leaving a list of internet passwords, increasing your life insurance, and writing a will, will give you peace of mind while you are on operations.
  • (Here, the writer has used a comma after will to show the end of the subject. It is hard to argue that this comma does not help the reader.)
Read more about using a comma with a long subject.

(8) Using Commas in Numbers

using commas in numbers
Commas can be used every 3 digit positions in large numbers to make them more readable. For example:
  • 3,356 correct tick
  • 12,128,153,356 correct tick
  • 175,757.01 correct tick
In Europe, the use of commas and full stops (small British flag) / periods (small American flag) is reversed. So, in Europe, the numbers above would be written:
  • 3.356 correct tick (in Europe)
  • correct tick (in Europe)
  • 175.757,01 correct tick (in Europe)
Read more about using commas with numbers.

(9) Using a Comma before Speech Marks

using commas before quotations
Words like He said, She shouted, The author stated, and She wrote often precede a quotation. A comma can be used after these words to separate them from the quotation. For example:
  • He said jokingly, "The world is my lobster." correct tick
  • Paul whispered, "Is he always that miserable?" correct tick
Note: You don't have to use a comma. Using nothing and using a colon after the words that introduce a quotation are also options.

In fact, it's your choice whether you follow your introductory words with a comma, a colon, or nothing. It depends on your desired flow of text. If you don't really care about the desired flow of text and you'd like some guidelines to help you decide which to use, then there is a useful guideline which states that a comma should be used for short quotations (six words or fewer) and colon should be used for longer quotations. (This is not a rule. It's a useful guideline.)

Read more about using a comma before speech marks.

(10) Using Commas with the Vocative Case

using commas for direct address
When words are used to address somebody (or something) directly, those words are said to be in the vocative case. In English, the vocative case is shown by offsetting it from the rest of the sentence with a comma (or commas if it's in the middle of the sentence). In the examples below, the words in the vocative case are shaded:
  • Do me the courtesy of shutting up, Alan. correct tick
  • Darling, can you take the casserole out the oven? correct tick
  • I know your sister, Jason. correct tick
  • Tell me it's good news, doctor. correct tick
  • And that, your Majesty, is how you make Eccles Cakes. I mean, it's how one makes Eccles Cakes. correct tick
Read more about using a comma when addressing someone.
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.