|A Brief, No-Nonsense Guide to Comma Usage
SEVEN PRIMARY USES OF THE COMMA
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JOINING INDEPENDENT CLAUSES IN COMPOUND SENTENCE STRUCTURES
Use a comma AND one of seven coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). (You may have learned to remember them with the use of the acronym FANBOYS.) You may also use a comma AND a correlative conjunction (both/and; either/or; neither/nor; not only/but also; etc.) to join independent clauses. Because coordinating and correlative conjunctions connect terms of EQUAL grammatical importance, writers need to differentiate independent clauses from other word groups if they are to use commas correctly. If you are unsure, please consult a handbook before attempting to apply the following lessons.
- Some of my friends are going to Europe this summer, but I am planning a trip to Mexico.
I am not only planning a trip to Mexico, but I am also planning a trip to Egypt.
- Some of my friends are going to Europe this summer and plan to again next summer.
- Some other friends are planning a trip not only to Europe but also to the Middle East.
- INTRODUCTORY ELEMENTS
Use commas to join introductory elements to the rest of the sentence. Note in particular the use of the comma in a complex sentence when the dependent (subordinate) clause comes first.
- Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.
- After eating, the male lion rested in the nearby shade.
In the meantime, we continued to photograph the playful cubs.
A series consists of three or more words, phrases, or clauses; ALWAYS use a comma before the last item in the series unless your instructor or professional style guide calls for its elimination.
The manager met with her office staff, departmental heads, and technical advisers.
PLACES AND DATES
Sherry Smith was born January 16, 1983, in Memphis, Tennessee 38118, and achieved national prominence on her 20th birthday.
She will hold a meeting at Collin County Community College on May 15, 2004, in Room G238 to discuss the role of technology in elementary schools.
A common error is the failure to place the comma after the year or the state.
ESSENTIAL AND NON-ESSENTIAL EXPRESSIONS
An essential expression/element affects the basic meaning of the sentence whereas a non-essential one does not. AVOID surrounding essential elements with commas. Placing commas on either side of a non-essential expression indicates that the information within the commas may be informative but not crucial.
Note: Reserve the pronoun that to introduce essential elements and the pronoun which to introduce non-essential ones. The pronoun who can introduce both types.
Collin Creek Mall, which was built in 1980, has enjoyed nearly two decades of prosperous growth.
The suburban mall that has enjoyed the most prosperous growth in Texas is Collin Creek.
Jane Smith, who is usually never at a loss for words, struggled to remember her lines during her acting debut.
The actress who is usually never at a loss for words is Jane Smith.
Use commas to join coordinate adjectives (adjectives that modify the same noun or its substitute). Test by reversing the words. You can also test their equality by joining them with the conjunction and. If the meaning of the sentence is wrecked, you do not have coordinate adjectives and therefore should not use commas.
Melissa proved to be a kind, cooperative employee.
(Melissa proved to be a kind and cooperative employee; Melissa proved to be a cooperative, kind employee.)
COMPARE TO THIS: His deep blue eyes reminded me of my grandfather. Reversing the adjectives here would obviously wreck the sentence.
Examples include the following:
Clarifying phrases (including appositives): Jane Smith, our student representative, is transferring to UTD soon.
Names and titles of people being addressed directly: Excuse me, Mr. Smith, for not recognizing you.
Abbreviations of titles/degrees: Susan Easley, Ph.D., will address our graduating class.
Echo questions: The student recognizes, doesn't he, that he won the contest?
Contrast phrases ("not" phrases): I like margarine, not butter, on my toast.
Adjectives that follow the words they modify: The Harley House, old and dilapidated, is an eyesore in her town.
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Please Note: Commas (and periods, too) ALWAYS stay inside quotation marks (unless, of course, you are using MLA or other parenthetical styles of documentation in your research papers).
Professor Joyce M. Miller Return to Home Page Return to Instructional Menu