4 Easy Punctuation Rules for Using Commas

Updated on September 9, 2016
VirginiaLynne profile image

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 5 most important reasons you need a comma. If you memorize these rules, you should be able to do it right every time.


Rule 1:

Use Before Conjunction Separating 2 Clauses

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:

  1. Circle all of the conjunctions in your paper (and, but, or, so, yet).
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. 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!

Students Editing Papers


Rule 2:

Use Between Introductory Element and Subject

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.

Several words:

  • 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

  1. Circle the subject in every sentence of your paper.
  2. Notice that there are words or a phrase before the subject? Put a comma right between that phrase and the subject. That's it!


Rule 3:

Use a comma to separate unimportant information from the rest of the sentence.

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 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:

  1. Look at each sentence, especially long ones.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 phrase is nonrestrictive and unnecessary. Use commas.


Rule 4:

Use a comma to separate a list.

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

Final Tips

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

How well did you learn these rules?

view quiz statistics

For English Second Language Learners

Questions & Answers

  • Should I use a comma before not in this sentence: The hockey players used the locker room not the change room?

    You are correct, there should be a comma. The correct sentence reads: The hockey players used the locker room, not the change room.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      RavenBiker--Never fear--parenthesis is appropriate in context (which is certainly how you use it here!).

    • RavenBiker profile image


      7 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA.

      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!

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      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 profile image


      7 years ago from Pittsburgh, PA.

      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 profile image


      7 years ago from waco tx

      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 profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      8 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      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 profile image


      9 years ago

      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 ! ;)

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      9 years ago from United States

      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 profile image


      9 years ago

      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.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks souleru--I really enjoyed your hubs. You pack a lot of good information in them and write well also!

    • souleru profile image


      9 years ago

      This is awesome. The internet needs more Strunk and White!

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      9 years ago from United States

      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 profile image

      Enlydia Listener 

      9 years ago from trailer in the country

      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.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)