What is a Comma?
A comma (,) is a punctuation mark that signifies a short break or pause in a sentence. Unlike a period, a comma does not end a sentence. It merely allows the reader to breathe.
How to Use a Comma
Here’s a simple guide to proper comma usage.
1. Use a comma to separate a series of more than two words, phrases, clauses, or ideas in a sentence.
Correct: We need to study for Math, English, and Science exams tomorrow [Three words were separated using two commas. Don’t separate two words with a comma.]
Wrong: We need to study for Math, and Science exams tomorrow. [There’s no need for a comma in this sentence, and is enough.]
NOTE: The final comma before the last word in the series (Math, English, and Science) is optional but it makes the sentence clearer. It’s called the Oxford Comma or the serial comma. Although an oxford comma is a choice, there are sentences that call for it.
Unclear: He will prepare for his exams on Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish and Philippine History. [This sentence is unclear about which exam he will prepare for: Spanish History or Spanish language?]
Clear: He will prepare for his exams on Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish, and Philippine History.
Here are some examples of sentences using commas to separate phrases or clauses in a series.
- He likes going to the beach, writing short stories, and listening to the radio.
- They came, they saw, they conquered. [Commas can join short independent clauses such as these three, sometimes for more impact.]
- She was asking where he went, what he ate, and why he didn’t call.
NOTE: Do not use a comma if all items in the series are connected by and or or.
- Liza ate fish and pork and ice cream.
- Have you been to Manila or Korea or Japan?
2. Use a comma to separate two or more adjectives describing a noun.
- Her beautiful, caring mother bakes delicious cookies.
- She has a soft, kind, comforting voice.
NOTE: Do not use commas for adjectives that are closely connected to the noun described.
- He gets angry over forgettable, minor details. [There’s no comma between minor and details because they are closely connected and can act as one term.]
- She kissed the baby’s soft, chubby little hands. [There’s no comma between chubby and little hands because they are essentially related and can serve as one term.]
Also, do not use a comma between an adjective and the noun that follows.
Wrong: She kissed the baby’s little, hands.
Correct: She kissed the baby’s little hands.
3. Use a comma before a conjunction that connects independent clauses. These conjunctions are and, but, or, nor, for, and yet.
An independent clause is a group of words that expresses a complete thought, meaning it has a subject and a verb. A sentence with two or more independent clauses is called a compound sentence.
- I was not aware you’re arriving today, but you’re welcome to stay. [The clauses on each side of the comma are independent. They form a complete thought.]
- She should be here in an hour, or we will not make it to the reception.
If the independent clauses joined by a conjunction are short, you may omit the comma.
- He said he was busy yet he is here.
- Her dress was beautiful but it’s old.
NOTE: Do not mistake a compound sentence with a simple sentence that has a compound verb.
Compound Sentence: She loves poetry and music, but she doesn’t say it.
Simple Sentence with Compound Verb: She loves poetry and music but doesn’t say it. [No comma between the conjunction but and a part of the compound verb, doesn’t say it.]
4. Use commas to separate non-essential clauses and phrases from the rest of the sentence.
A non-essential phrase or clause is a group of words that can be omitted without losing the meaning of the sentence.
- Her eyes, blue as the sea, twinkle as she talks. [The non-essential phrase blue as the sea can be omitted; commas needed.]
- Anyone who has blue eyes can join the contest. [The phrase who has blue eyes is essential to the sentence; commas not needed.]
Related Reading: Hyphens – Joining Words Together
5. Use a comma after a phrase or clause that begins a sentence.
- After graduation, we went our separate ways.
- During December, she comes home to be with us.
NOTE: Some phrases and clauses at the end of a sentence does not need a comma.
- She comes home to be with us during December.
- He left when he found a new job.
6. Use commas to separate interrupters, appositives, parenthetical expressions, and direct addresses from the rest of the sentence.
6A) Interrupters are words that interrupt the sentence, such as well, yes, no, why, and of course.
- Yes, I lied about not liking vegetables.
- Cheating in an exam is, of course, never an option.
6B) An appositive is a word that renames the noun it follows. It usually gives more details about the noun. An appositive phrase is composed of an appositive and other words connected to it.
- He grew up in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun. [The last phrase is an appositive phrase because it identifies Japan.]
- Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero, died in 1896.
NOTE: Do not use a comma or commas to separate an appositive that is essential to the noun it identifies.
- He’s read all books by the legendary author Harper Lee.
- His mother Celine prepared a lunch for us.
6C) Parenthetical expressions are also a kind of interrupters in the form of phrases. Parenthetical expressions are not necessarily essential to the meaning of the sentence. Examples are I think, I suppose, however, in my opinion, in fact, of course, mind you, for example, for instance, and to be honest. Use a comma to separate them from the rest of the sentence.
- In my opinion, the film was great.
- Everything the government does, I suppose, is to delay the elections.
- Mind you, everything is temporary.
6D) When directly addressing a person, use a comma before or on both sides of a person’s name.
- Mary, I cannot do what you’re asking.
- No matter what happens, Pam, I’ll be with you.
7. Use a comma in writing dates, addresses, and salutations of friendly letters.
- She was born on January 30, 1963, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
- Her flight is on Saturday, August 14, next week.
NOTE: Do not use a comma if a preposition separates the details of the address.
- She lives in Shizuoka City in Japan.
Use a comma after salutations and closing of friendly letters.
- Dear Mia,
- Sincerely yours,
Supply the needed comma or commas in each sentence.
- After taking a long nap the toddler is running around the house again.
- Her mother who likes roses gave us a beautiful vase.
- We need to buy a book paper pencil and a pair of scissors.
- He was asleep all day in the bedroom but he was supposed to be at work.
- I’ve always wanted to study in Canada the Great White North.
- After taking a long, nap the toddler is running around the house again.
- Her mother, who likes roses, gave us a beautiful vase.
- We need to buy a book, paper, pencil, and a pair of scissors.
- He was asleep all day in the bedroom, but he was supposed to be at work.
- I’ve always wanted to study in Canada, the Great White North.
Thank you for reading. We hope it’s effective! Always feel free to revisit this page if you ever have any questions about commas.