Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.
To Use or Not to Use
That is the question! My college students have trouble using commas correctly and you might have trouble too. To help, I've written this simple guide for the five most important reasons you need a comma. If you memorize these rules, you should be able to do it right every time.
Example: James kissed me, but he really likes Betty best.
That rule might sound difficult, but it really isn't if you understand these two words:
- Clause: a phase that has both a subject and a verb (which makes it a sentence, no matter how short). Simple Clauses: Jeremy jumped. Ricardo ran. Mercedes twirled.
- Conjunctions: and, but, or, so, yet.
Here is the pattern: main clause, conjunction main clause.
(3 clauses) Jeremy jumped, and Ricardo ran, but Mercedes twirled!
(2 clauses) We came to class, but everyone had gone home.
(2 clauses) You left without me yesterday, yet I still managed to find someone to go home with me.
(3 clauses) Sally ate lunch with me before, so I expected she would eat with me today, but she asked Violet to sit by her instead.
(3 clauses) My friends were going to go home with me, but they didn't remember to wait until my class was finished, so I walked home alone.
How to Proofread Your Paper for This Rule:
- Circle all of the conjunctions in your paper (and, but, or, so, yet).
- Check to see if there is both a subject and a verb in the clauses on either side of the conjunction. If not, then you may not need a comma (Example: Jessica ran to the store and got ice cream. In this example "got ice cream" isn't a full sentence because it doesn't have a new subject. The subject is still "Jessica" so you don't need a comma.)
- Did you find a conjunction that is between 2 clauses? Great. Put a comma before the conjunction. (Example: Jessica ran to the store, but her mother had forgotten to give her the money for ice cream.)
- Here's a second way to check if you aren't sure. Can you put a period where the conjunction is and have the sentences still make sense? If so, put a comma.(Example: Jessica ran to the store. Her mother had forgotten to give her the money for ice cream.) That still sounds correct, so the comma works!
Example: Especially on Saturday, I like to sleep in late.
Introductory Element: a word or phrase that comes before the subject in a sentence.
Pattern: Introductory Element, subject and rest of sentence.
Notice that an Introductory Element can be just one word:
- Nevertheless, I don't think I can believe her ever again.
Read More From Owlcation
- Even in Chicago, I don't think people really want to eat pizza every night.
Or a very long phrase:
- Driving down the highway in a red convertible with the top down and her hair blowing in the breeze, May felt that she was finally the successful businesswoman she had always wanted to become.
How to Proofread Your Paper for This Rule
- Circle the subject in every sentence of your paper.
- Notice that there are words or a phrase before the subject? Put a comma right between that phrase and the subject. That's it!
Example: Bleary-eyed and half-awake, she stumbled into Starbucks.
"Nonrestrictive element" is the grammar term for stuff that isn't really important in a sentence. If you take out "nonrestrictive element" then you still understand the most important parts. Nonrestrictive elements can be put anywhere in the sentence (before the verb, after the verb or at the end of the sentence).
Restrictive element: Can you guess what "restrictive elements" might be? You're right. It is the part of the sentence that you have to have, like the subject and verb and any information that is needed so that the reader gets the main point.
Patterns and Examples
main clause, nonrestrictive element.
- Cheryl loves to go to Starbucks, her favorite hangout and study place.
nonrestrictive element, main clause.
- Although enjoying the free wifi and good vibes, Cheryl likes the coffee most of all.
subject, nonrestrictive element, verb and rest of the sentence.
- Cheryl, my roommate in college, is fast becoming a Starbucks addict.
- Joy, my other roommate, always gets a latte because it is her favorite drink.
subject, nonrestrictive element, verb and main clause, nonrestrictive element
- Her boyfriend, whom I had just met that morning, got a steamed milk, which he didn't think was hot enough.
How to Proofread for This Rule:
- Look at each sentence, especially long ones.
- Think: Is the information necessary or not? If you can read the sentence without that phrase and the sentence still makes sense and says the main idea, then you need a comma to separate that unnecessary (nonrestrictive) information from the rest of the sentence.
- Another way to check is to try to add parenthesis around the information. Does that work when you read the sentence? Then that is another sign that the phrase is nonrestrictive and unnecessary. Use commas.
Example: Raul brought a tent, sleeping bag, guitar, camera, and pajamas.
This is probably the easiest rule. When you have a list, you need to separate the items by a comma.
Pattern ... Item 1, item 2, and/or item 3....
I got a small flavored coffee, Swiss mocha, and two muffins, one blueberry and the other apple-cinnamon.
Cheryl bought a chocolate donut, a cinnamon bun, three donut holes, and two twists.
- You also use a comma to separate a list of describing words (adjectives) but you don't use a comma before the word the list is describing.
Pattern: First adjective, second adjective, third adjective word modified
the sticky, sweet, chocolate donut
the soft, white, fluffy inside of the chocolate-glazed, sprinkle-covered donut
When you are doing a final proofread for punctuation, it helps to read the paper out loud. Frequently, we will pause as we read if there needs to be a comma.
Instead of a comma around nonrestrictive elements, you can also use parenthesis or dashes, but those are more informal types of punctuation and they create a slightly different meaning. Here is the difference:
- Parenthesis: shows that the information is really not very important, or is another name for something.
- Dash: emphasizes the information but also gives an informal and casual feel. Dashes work best in emails and in writing that is like speaking.
Main clause: contains a subject and verb, whole sentence
Phrase: group of words which aren't a complete sentence (subordinate clause)
Introductory element: any phrase that comes before the subject
Nonrestrictive element: any phrase which is not needed, extra information
Restrictive element: phrase which is needed for the sentence to make sense
Questions & Answers
Question: Should I use a comma before not in this sentence: The hockey players used the locker room not the change room?
Answer: You are correct, there should be a comma. The correct sentence reads: The hockey players used the locker room, not the change room.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 17, 2012:
RavenBiker--Never fear--parenthesis is appropriate in context (which is certainly how you use it here!).
RavenBiker from Pittsburgh, PA. on October 16, 2012:
Yes, Virginia, I have used semi-colons and a professor scolded me about its missuse. I have had a tendency to avoid semi-colons since (which does nothing for varying my sentence structure).
Yikes! I used parentheticals!
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 16, 2012:
RavenBiker--you make a very interesting comment about using commas to vary sentence structure. I had not thought of that before, but I think lots of people do that. I'll have to add that to my talk on commas in class. You might want to hop over to my hub about semicolons and the other one on parallelism--those are two other ways to write more complicated ideas in sentences.
RavenBiker from Pittsburgh, PA. on October 16, 2012:
Thanks for this hub and I will probably bookmark it. I was told that I am the comma queen when I write even though I have little idea what they mean. I have, however as of late, been self editing myself when I see too many commas. The strange thing is that I have relied too much on commas to vary my sentence structure----bad idea.
Anyhow, thanks! The hub was very useful.
sarahbyers from waco tx on September 16, 2012:
I think using a comma to separate two main clauses with a conjunction is the most confusing rule (Rule #1), because there are cases when the sentence could sound correct without it.
Phil Plasma from Montreal, Quebec on September 03, 2011:
I've been copy-editing some hubs by leaving a positive comment, but then emailing the hubber with some recommended corrections. I haven't come across too many comma problems; usually it is incorrectly using an apostrophe, or more rarely, using a comma when it should be a semi-colon.
Great hub, it would be great if this was seen by all of the hubbers out there who could benefit. Voted up and useful.
whoisbid on June 07, 2011:
This is fascinating! I like to be slightly obscene at times but some Americans do not understand my humour - whoops "humor"
I went to a public school in the United Kingdom and was taught English by a man who liked wearing plus fours but I am wondering if people know that it was actually a Private School? It is all so confusing because I am technically trained and am being forced to talk about internet cookies (HubPages uses them) but I know that cookies do not exist and that the correct term is "biscuit"
To add to the confusion, I like eating sweets and never talk about candy.
I am bilingual and often speak to people in my house using two or three languages at the same time
There is no hope for people like me in the USA unless I learn to mimic you ! ;)
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on June 07, 2011:
You have a very good point! These comma rules are written with U.S. standard practice in mind. Although one of my specialties is Victorian literature (they didn't have ANY rules for punctuation in those times--usually it was left up to the printer, who could do it any way they wanted!), I don't know what current U.K. rules might be. Also, I should say that these five rules don't cover all situations, but they are the ones that cause the most mistakes. As far as words go--I was taught that you could do either color or colour, theater or theatre! Signs are a whole different ball game. In fact, last night my son was reading a book I found in San Francisco called "Signs" which has pictures of all sorts of real signs that are misprints, misspellings or just plain silly! I should write a hub about that.
whoisbid on June 07, 2011:
It is strange because some of us grew up either in the UK or the USA. I grew up in the UK and somehow I feel that I have been taught a completely different language, even when it comes to commas. Who is right and who is wrong in English anymore?
I see the word "highly flammable" written everywhere but I was taught that it was incorrect and should be "inflammable" and I see "equipments" everywhere but I know the word does not exist. Maybe it does exist if everyone else but me uses it..LOL!
I guess that English is becoming a bit more colourful and I sometimes feel I have to drop the "u" and talk about "color' instead.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 23, 2011:
Thanks souleru--I really enjoyed your hubs. You pack a lot of good information in them and write well also!
souleru on May 23, 2011:
This is awesome. The internet needs more Strunk and White!
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 22, 2011:
Thanks Enlydia--I find that most of my students have been given too many rules to follow and they get confused. I didn't get good grammar instruction in my own schooling. So I've had to learn as I've taught. I'm always trying to find ways to make it easier to remember. I welcome any ideas from readers!
Enlydia Listener from trailer in the country on May 18, 2011:
I liked this hub...I either put too many commas in or not enough...and I am not sure if I trust the Word program to know better.