The Comma

The Comma

Commas are vixens. You court them, listen to them, buy them chocolates, and just as you’re about to fall in love, they break your heart. As with rules of love, comma rules are not set in stone.

1. Use the comma to be clear and to avoid confusion.

When Angelina looked over, Brad Pitt closed his eyes.

When Angelina looked over Brad, Pitt closed his eyes.

To recycle Bettye, Ann bags her bottles and shleps them to the city dump.

To recycle, Bettye Ann bags her bottles and shleps them to the city dump.

The position of the comma changes the meaning. In the first sentence, we have a guy named Brad Pitt. In the second sentence, we have two guys; one named Brad, the other named Pitt.

2. Commas with conjunctions.

Use a comma before a coordinate conjunction that separates two independent clauses. (an independent clause could be a sentence if it were not attached to another clause). There are seven coordinate conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet.

Leo was already furious, but she contorted her face in a cruel attempt to infuriate him further.

They hobnobbed with movie stars, yet she refused to buy herself a decent taffeta gown.

Puppies wrangle for momma’s attention, and for first dibs at her silky sacs of milk.

Although the second clause begins with a coordinating conjunction, it does not begin with a comma because it is a dependent clause—it cannot stand alone as a sentence.

Do not use a comma between two independent clauses without a conjunction.


Henry hid the blunts in his hatband, he did not know that the wrapper showed.

Henry hid the blunts in his hatband; he did not know that the wrapper showed. (A semicolon has been inserted between the two independent clauses).

Also correct:
Henry hid the cigarettes in his hatband, but he did not know that the wrapper showed. (A conjunction now joins the two independent clauses).

Also correct:
Henry hid the blunts in his hatband. He did not know that the wrapper showed. (We have split the sentence into two sentences).

Exercises: Some of these sentences are missing a comma. Other have a comma where there shouldn’t be one. Others are correct.

  1. Doctor Goldberg told us that grandma had a clogged colon and he was glad that she came in when she did.
  2. I told her I could never marry her son for I was moving to Istanbul with Brad.
  3. He sobbed, and begged me to reconsider.

Use a comma before a conjunction that links the last two items in a series.

He saw his girlfriend in the beauty parlor, in the nail salon, yet never at home.

Many competent writers leave out the final comma. Nevertheless, this can cause confusion. The following sentence could mean that his ex-wives and stock picks are part of his problems:

He blabbed about his problems, his ex-wives and his stock picks.

If ex-wives and stock picks are not part of his money problems, but are two subjects he blabbed about, then punctuate the sentence in the following manner:

He blabbed about his money problems, his ex-wives, and his stock picks.

Use commas after introductory elements.

a. Use a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase.

After the kiss, her eyes again slowly filled with tears. —D. H. Lawrence

b. Use a comma after an introductory participial phrase.

Soaking up the adulation of his fans, Professor Tashman moon-walked twice across the stage.

Use commas with coordinate items in a series.

Commas separate a series of three or more coordinate items (adjectives are coordinate when they modify a noun separately):

A dry, spiky, shrunken prune lay on the plate. (Note: an adjective is coordinate if it can be joined with the article and–“A dry and spiky and shrunken prune…”).

After the blast, body parts, football helmets, and glockenspiels littered the playing field.

When two or more adjectives do not modify the noun
separately, they are cumulative and should not be separated by a comma.

His navy blue eyes bore into mine like an ice pick.

In this case, “His navy and blue eyes bore into mine like an ice pick” sounds funny. We place no comma after navy because it does not modify eyes alone, it modifies blue eyes. A good way to tell if this rule applies is to switch the adjectives.

His blue navy eyes bore into mind like an ice pick.

Exercises: Some of these sentences leave the comma out. Others have commas that shouldn’t be there. A few sentences are correct:

  1. The purplish pus-filled scaly lesion hanging from my temple burst like an angry volcano.
  2. Using an army knife, I opened the can of spicy squid.
  3. Smokey, white, storm clouds drifted from the burning buildings towards Brooklyn.

Use commas to separate two or more adjectives when they modify the same noun:

President Schwarzenegger addressed the nation in a friendly, avuncular manner.

Small, yellow, spicy squid drowned in Miss Mary’s homemade ice cream sauce.

Use commas to set off phrases and clauses that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Tony, the boy who lived next door, was able to do a wheelie on a tricycle.

“the boy who lived next door” is a non-restrictive clause—a clause that is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence. Remove it and the meaning of the sentence stays the same: “Tony was able to do a wheelie on a tricycle.”

Somebody that would abandon a child should be locked up.

“that would abandon a child” is a restrictive clause. The sentence would mean something different without it: “Somebody should be locked up.” In this case, do not use a comma.

Using Commas with dates, addresses, salutations, names, and numbers

Insert commas to set off the parts of dates and addresses within a sentence.

On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I was on my way to the soccer field when I heard the news about the Kennedy assassination.

Before he died, my dad had an office at 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Manhattan, NY 10021.

Insert a comma to set off the name of someone addressed directly in a sentence.

You, Timothy, deserve either a raise or a spanking.

Boswell, your essay was preposterous, but I like your tuxedo.

Use a comma after the greeting in an informal letter.

Dear Mother,

Dear Sweetie Weetie Pie,

Dear Evil Brother,

Note: Use a colon after formal salutations.

To Whom It May Concern:
Dear Madam:
Esteemed Hellboy:

Use a comma after the closing in all letters.

Yours truly,


  1. Finally she came in the room where we were watching TV.
  2. Guys I’m robbing the bank tomorrow.
  3. Whatever it was she found in my pocket didn’t bother me, so she stopped telling everyone I was a cheat.

Using Commas with Quotation Marks.

The following examples illustrate four ways to use commas with quotes.

“I suspect he ain’t ever been Baptized,” Mrs. Connin said, raising her eyebrows at the preacher.

—Flannery O’Conner

In the above example, “I suspect he ain’t ever been Baptized” is the quote. “Mrs. Connin said” is the tag—the part of the quote that identifies the speaker. Always insert a comma after a quote if the tag follows, even if the quote is a complete sentence. And be sure to place the comma inside the quotation marks.

Sitting up in her satin-sheeted bed, Mrs. Miller lit a Camel and said, “Your timing is atrocious, Rockwell.”

In the above example, the tag precedes the quote. Therefore, the comma is placed after the tag. Note that the quote now ends with a period. Also note that the period, like the comma above, goes inside of the quotation marks.

“Suck on this, baby,” he coaxed, sticking the dooby between her waiting lips. “Why drink and drive when you can smoke and fly.”

In the above example, the tag interrupts the quote. Because the quote is made up of two different sentences, the first sentence, which is followed by the tag, ends with a comma. The tag ends with a period. The second quote, a complete sentence not followed by a tag, ends with a period.

“Do you honestly think,” she said, in a voice filled with loathing, “that I smoke that crap? I may be a high school dropout, but I am not one of your Parisian whores.”

In this final example, the tag interrupts a quote that is a single sentence. Therefore, commas are inserted before and after the tag.

Insert the correct punctuation into the following quotations.
1. “Get the fuck out of here” Sam laughed when I told him that Toyya had a crush on him.

2. He said “Toyya hasn’t even talked to me since fourth grade. How is she going around telling people she likes me?”

3. “I didn’t say she liked you” I said, getting a little angry. “All I said was that she has a crush on you”.

4. “What if” Sam exclaimed examining his fingernails “I sent her an anonymous Valentine’s Day card”

5. “Hello handsome” she whispered when I finally answered the phone.

6. Holding my gun in his mutilated hand Dag said “I believe this is yours Bobo.”

7. “Damn Ellen you act as if you really needed to be kissed.” Harriet teased.

8. Her sandwiches, made with Progresso tuna toasted rye garlic mayonnaise curry powder and mustard made me forget the Happy Meal I’d left in the taxi.

9. Dearest Hellboy I hate the Academy of Motion Picture Arts for not awarding you an Oscar.

10. Having swallowed two Xanaxes and a vodka martini, I determined to not flip out if he came home again with a hickey.

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