Grammar 18 min read

✏️How to Use Commas: A Super Simple Guide With Examples

Main How to use Commas Takeaways:

  • A comma is a punctuation mark that creates a soft pause.
  • A comma separates words, not letters.
  • Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives (We enjoyed the warm, sunny weather).
  • Use commas to separate items in a list. Use the Oxford or serial comma before the last item in a list to clarify the list.
  • Put a comma after introductory words, phrases, and clauses.
  • Nonrestrictive (nonessential clauses) need commas. These can include appositives, negations, interrupters, parenthetical elements, and question tags.
  • Restrictive (essential) clauses don’t need commas.
  • When a conjunction like and, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so separates two independent clauses, use a comma before the conjunction (I love him dearly, but I can’t stand the way he chews).
  • Use a comma to separate names. Examples include separate a city from a state (Boston, Massachusetts), a last name from a first name (Morris, Krista), or a proper name from a title (Chris Parbey, Jr.).
  • Use a comma after every three numbers when a number is bigger than 999 (1,000,000).
  • Dates that use the day-month-year format need a comma between the day and the month. Put a comma between the day of the week and the date (Tuesday, September 11, 2001).
  • Use a comma to separate the attribution tag and the quotation (“I’m coming home early,” she proclaimed).
  • In American English, the comma goes inside the quotation marks. Conversely, in British English, the comma goes outside the quotation marks.
  • Never use a comma in place of period or semi colon. This could create a comma splice, which is a grammatical error.
  • You don’t need a comma in comparisons that use “than.”

Commas are one of the most versatile tools in the English Language. As a result, how to use commas correctly is one of the most difficult things to master. In this ultimate guide, we’ll tell you exactly when you need to use a comma and when you don’t. We’ll also give you easy tricks to know how to use commas correctly every time.

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Do you know how to use commas in your writing? In a nutshell, we use commas to separate different elements of a sentence.
Do you know how to use commas in your writing? In a nutshell, we use commas to separate different elements of a sentence.

What do Commas Mean?

A comma is a punctuation mark that separates words, not letters. Commas helps add clarity to your writing. For example, commas can indicate a pause or transition. What’s more, commas can help join ideas and make the relationships between them clearer. Generally, nonrestrictive clauses need commas. On the other hand, restrictive clauses do not need commas. Use commas in lists, addresses, dates, and in numbers greater than 999. Also use commas after introductory clauses and for nonrestrictive clauses that begin with conjunctions like and, which, such as, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so. Finally, quotations, interrupters, and some parenthetical statements need commas.

Comma definition: (noun) a punctuation mark that separates a list or indicates a pause between words

A comma looks like an apostrophe, but it appears at the bottom of a word rather than the top. Unlike an apostrophe, use a comma to separate words, not letters.

It helps to think of commas in video game terms. Using a comma is like hitting the pause button on a sentence. You can resume your game—or sentence—when you’re ready.

When do you use a Comma?

Use a Comma in these situations:

  • After a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence
  • After introductory adverbs and phrases like although, interestingly, and in fact.
  • After a freestanding “yes” or “no”
  • After directly addressing someone
  • Before coordinating conjunctions (like and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so) that join two independent clauses
  • To offset nonessential or nonrestrictive clauses
  • To offset appositives
  • To offset interrupters and parenthetical elements
  • Before question tags
  • To separate list items
  • After the day in the month-day-year format
  • Between the day of the week and a date in the day-month-year format
  • After every three numbers for numbers greater than 999
  • To separate cities from states
  • To separate proper names from titles
  • Between coordinate adjectives
  • Between attributive tags and quotations
  • Inside quotation marks in American English

Do not use a comma in these situations:

  • To replace a period or semicolon. This creates a comma splice.
  • To offset restrictive or essential clauses
  • To separate a subject from its verb
  • To separate two nouns that form a compound subject or compound object (two separate nouns doing the same thing)
  • To separate two verbs that form a compound predicate (one subject that does two things)
  • After the word “than” in comparisons
  • Between a month and a year
  • In the day-month-year format for dates
  • Before and in a list of just two items

Let’s take a closer look at when you need to use a comma in your writing.

Commas After Introductory Words, Phrases, and Clauses

Rule: Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. Introductory clauses often begin with words like: after, although, because, before, if, since, until, and when.
When my dog needs exercise, I take her for a long walk on the beach.

After a Dependent Clause at the Beginning of a Sentence

While we were hiking we spotted a deer.
While we were hiking, we spotted a deer.
We spotted a deer while hiking.
Independent clauses can stand alone, so they don’t need a comma unless you include a conjunction.
Independent clauses can stand alone, so they don’t need a comma unless you include a conjunction.

After Introductory Adverbs and Phrases

Interestingly, we spotted a deer while hiking.
Interestingly we spotted a deer while hiking.

After a Freestanding Yes or No

Yes, we saw a deer while hiking.
Yes we saw a deer while hiking.
No, we didn’t chase it.
No we didn’t chase it.

To Directly Address Someone

Karen, did you call the police again?
Karen did you call the police again?
Mr. President, you have a call on your secure line.
Mr. President you have a call on your secure line.

Commas With Coordinating Conjunctions Connecting Independent Clauses

Rule: Commas should be used to separate independent clauses that are linked by and, but, so, or, for, nor, and yet.

Independent clauses have this name because they can function as complete sentences on their own. Two independent clauses might be separate sentences, but they also might express ideas that are related. In this case, we can join these separate thoughts using a coordinating conjunction.

The comma before the coordinating conjunction is like the glue that holds these two independent clauses together.

Use a comma before these coordinating conjunctions when they join two independent clauses:

I was craving seafood, so I treated myself to a lobster at my favorite restaurant.
I was craving seafood so I treated myself to a lobster at my favorite restaurant.
They arrived safely at the lodge, but they weren’t able to check in until the next day.
They arrived safely at the lodge but they weren’t able to check in until the next day.

Do You Need a Comma Before Especially?

Use a comma when the word “especially” divides a parenthetical phrase. A parenthetical phrase describes nonessential information that is added to a sentence. The info does not change the sentence’s meaning.

Jill loves cupcakes, especially when they have chocolate frosting.
Sal tries to watch every Cardinals game, especially when Yadi is on the field.
My kids love a homemade breakfast, especially when it includes pancakes.

In the sentences above, especially acts as a conjunction. You don’t need a comma when especially is an adverb.

Lisa wasn’t especially fond of her ex.
The street was especially busy because the crew is repairing the potholes.
At first, her ideas weren’t especially welcome in the male-dominated office.

Commas With Nonessential Words or Phrases

Rule: Use commas to offset phrases or words that are not essential to the sentence.

Try this quick trick to confirm whether or not you need commas around a particular word or phrase. First, remove the word or phrase from the sentence. Second, ask yourself: Does the sentence still make sense? Did the meaning change?

If the meaning doesn’t really change, then you need a comma.

This is because the word or phrase represents a nonrestrictive or nonessential clause. In other words, there’s nothing that restricts us from removing it from the sentence. It’s not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

I set up the dining room table, which only seats six, before the dinner party.

In this example, try removing the phrase which only seats six.

I set up the dining room table before the dinner party.

Sure, we lose a bit of detail. But, the core meaning of the sentence doesn’t change.

Therefore, which on seats six is a nonrestrictive clauses that we should offset with commas to show this.

If the meaning does change, then you don’t need a comma.

This is because the word or phrase represents a restrictive or essential clause. In other words, there is something that restricts us from removing it from the sentence. It is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Commas With Appositives

Similarly, you should always use commas to offset a nonrestrictive or nonessential appositive. Appositives are nouns or noun phrases that identify the nouns that come right before them.

Easily test if a word or phrase is restrictive or nonrestrictive by removing it from the sentence.

If you sentence still makes sense and the meaning doesn’t change, then the phrase is nonrestrictive. As a result, you need to use commas:

Her supervisor, Laura, usually leaves around 7 pm.
Her supervisor Laura usually leaves around 7 pm.
He proposed to her in Punta Ala, a secluded town in Southern Tuscany.
He proposed to her in Punta Ala a secluded town in Southern Tuscany.

However, if you sentence does not make sense or the meaning has changed, then the phrase is nonrestrictive. As a result, you don’t need to use commas:

The actress Julia Roberts plans to make a special guest appearance.
The actress, Julia Roberts, plans to make a special guest appearance.

Commas With Negations

Rule: Commas can set off contrasted coordinate elements in the middle of sentence or at the end.

In general, commas can help clarify what we mean. One specific example is using commas to offset contrasted coordinate elements like negations.

We saw a deer, not a bear, while hiking.
That mistake was because of carelessness, not stupidity.

Commas With Interrupters and Parenthetical Elements

Interrupters are words or short phrases that appear in the middle of a sentence. They help show emotion, add emphasis, or convey tone.

Parenthetical elements are a type of interrupter. They represent an aside. For example, they add additional information that provides more detail but isn’t essential. We show that they are not essential by offsetting them with commas, dashes, or parenthesis.

In this way, interrupters and parenthetical elements behave like nonrestrictive clauses. Offsetting them with commas helps show that they are nice to have, but not essential.

We know we need commas to offset nonrestrictive or nonessential clauses. This is because this type of clause adds extra information to a sentence without changing the core meaning.

The buffet you’ll be thrilled to know is all-you-can-eat.
The buffet, you’ll be thrilled to know, is all-you-can-eat.
The buffet (you’ll be thrilled to know) is all-you-can-eat.
Her eldest daughter unlike mine is extremely outgoing.
Her eldest daughter, unlike mine, is extremely outgoing.
Her eldest daughter (unlike mine) is extremely outgoing.
It was after all the happiest day of my life.
It was, after all, the happiest day of my life.
It was (after all) the happiest day of my life.

Commas Before Question Tags

A question tag is a word or phrase added at the end of statement that turns the sentence into a question. They are a way to encourage your audience to agree with you.

The flowers they sent were lovely, weren’t they?
The courier didn’t really deliver the documents to the wrong office, did he?

Since you can remove a question tag without changing the meaning of the sentence, think of a question tag as a nonrestrictive or nonessential clause.

As a result, you should always use a comma before the question tag.

Commas With Lists

Rule: Use serial commas to separate items in a list or series of three or more things. Depending on the style guide, the last comma may be optional. However, if omitting the last comma may cause any confusion, you should include it.

Separate List Items With a Comma

My shopping list included eggs, milk, bread and treats for our cat.
My shopping list included eggs, milk, bread, and treats for our cat.
Commas separate words, not letters.
Commas separate words, not letters.

When to use an Oxford (Serial) Comma

For lists of three or more items, you can use an Oxford comma before the coordinating conjunction. Because it helps separate items in a series, it is also called a serial comma.

June enjoyed a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, and biscuits.
Jason loves soccer, track, and basketball.
Sadie’s cat enjoys tuna, salmon, and beef.
Jackson’s wife asked him to grab some items from Target, Home Depot, and the grocery store.

Clarify a List

Some writers omit Oxford commas because style guides or publications don’t allow it. However, this can cause confusion.

Sometimes, omitting or including a serial comma can change the meaning of the sentence.

Sarah had lunch with her best friend, a butterfly collector and an unfaithful spouse.

Without the serial comma, this sentence could mean two completely different things:

  • Option 1: Sarah had lunch with one person (her best friend that collects butterflies and cheats on her husband)
  • Option 2: Sarah had lunch with three different different people.

Option 1: Sarah only had lunch with one person, her best friend.

In this case, the phrase a butterfly collector and an unfaithful spouse is acting as an appositive that identifies her best friend.

Since this appositive is nonrestrictive, we need to use a comma before the appositive.

Sarah had lunch with her best friend, a butterfly collector and an unfaithful spouse.

Option 2: Sarah actually had lunch with three different people.

In this case, phrase a butterfly collector and an unfaithful spouse is not acting as an appositive.

Instead, the phrase a butterfly collector describes one person and the phrase an unfaithful spouse describes another person. To make it absolutely clear that we are talking about three separate people instead of one, we should use a serial comma.

Sarah had lunch with her best friend, a butterfly collector, and an unfaithful spouse.

Commas with Dates

When to use a Comma with Dates

Month-day-year Format

Their great grandmother became an American citizen on June 12, 1958.

Day of the Week + Date

Their great grandmother became an American citizen on Thursday, June 12, 1958, at 10 am.

When not to use a Comma with Dates

Day-month-year Format

His entire unit deployed on 25 March 2011.
His entire unit deployed on 25 March, 2011.

Only Month + Year

His entire unit deployed in March 2011.
His entire unit deployed in March, 2011.

Commas With Numbers

Rule: For numbers that are larger than 999, add a comma after every three numbers.

A comma represents the thousandths place of a number. You place it between the digits in the thousands and hundreds spots.

One comma means you are working with a number in the thousands. This number may be as small as 1,000 or as large as 999,999.

1,234
13,579
35,777
999,999

A number with two commas has a value in the millions. This number should range from 1,000,000 to 999,999,999.

500,000,000

In the United States, people use decimals to separate integers from fractions. Other countries, such as Japan, China, and Singapore, prefer commas.

Commas With Names

Rule: Use commas to set apart geographical places and titles in names.
He moved to Long Island, New York.
The letter was addressed to Dr. Robert Morris, PhD.

Commas with Addresses

It’s important to format your address correctly if you’re shipping a package or mailing a letter.

Between the City and State

In the United States, addresses typically require a comma between the city and state.

Jolie Joverson

123 Main Street

St. Louis, MO 63114

When Formatting an Address in a Sentence

I live at 123 Main Street, St. Louis, Missouri, 63114.

Commas Between Coordinate Adjectives

Rule: Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives that describe a noun.

Coordinate adjectives modify the same noun to the same degree. In other words, they coordinate with one another to describe a noun.

When you’re not sure if adjectives are coordinate or not, try switching around their order. Does the sentence still make sense? Does it still sound correct?

Let’s say that the sentence still makes sense and sounds correct. Then, the adjectives are coordinate and you need a comma to separate them.

We experienced damp, windy conditions for days after the big storm.
We experienced windy, damp conditions for days after the big storm.

However, let’s say that the sentence does not still make sense. Or, it sounds incorrect.

Then, the adjectives are not coordinate and you don’t need a comma between them.

That sweet elderly woman has breakfast here every day.
That elderly sweet woman has breakfast here every day.

Commas With Quotations

Between Attributive Tag and Quotation

Rule: Use a comma between dialogue tags and quotations.

An attributive tag, or dialogue tag, identifies the speaker. For example, “she said” and “the professor explained” are attributive tags.

Attributive tags can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. Use a comma to separate the attributive tag from the quotation.

She said, “I’m taking the dog for a walk.”
“When I come home from work,” she said, “I’m taking the dog for a walk.”
“I’m taking the dog for a walk,” she said.

You don’t need a comma if the quotation ends in an exclamation point or question mark.

“The house is on fire!” he yelled as he ran down the hill toward us.
“The house is on fire!”, he yelled as he ran down the hill toward us.

Inside Quotation Marks

In American English, always place the comma inside the quotation marks. Conversely, in British English, always place the comma outside the closing quotation marks.

American English:

“Call me the second you arrive,” her father warned.
“Call me the second you arrive”, her father warned.

British English:

“Kindly deliver the crates to dock 48”, the captain requested.
“Kindly deliver the crates to dock 48,” the captain requested.

What Are Comma Splices?

Comma splices are a common error. They occur when someone joins two independent clauses with an unnecessary comma. You can prevent this problem by adding a conjunction or breaking the clauses into two separate sentences.

Mallory went to the buffet, she ate lots of food.
Mallory went to the buffet, and she ate lots of food.
Mallory went to the buffet. She ate lots of food.

You can also turn the second half of your sentence into a dependent clause. This eliminates the need for a comma.

Mallory went to the buffet and ate lots of food.

You can identify a comma splice by reading each half of your sentence separately. Can each section stand on its own? If so, you don’t need a comma unless you add a conjunction.

Why Do We Use Commas?

Commas provide clarification. Separating words with a comma helps readers understand your thoughts in an essay, email, or article. Sometimes commas appear between words where people naturally pause while speaking.

However, you should not always place a comma where you would pause in a verbal conversation. Many people overuse commas, which leads to confusion. It also makes sentences choppy and hard to understand.

Rule: Use commas to prevent confusion or to clarify meaning.
She wasn’t killed, mercifully. — vs.— She wasn’t killed mercifully.

See if You’ve Mastered how to use Commas With a Quick Quiz

How to use Commas Question #1

Which statement is NOT correct?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. A comma is a punctuation mark that separates a list or indicates a pause between words. You can't use it to separate letters.

Comma Question #2

An Oxford comma is also known as a serial comma.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is TRUE. An Oxford comma is also called a serial comma because it appears in a list of three or more items.

Commas Question #3

Which sentence is properly punctuated with commas?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. Place an oxford comma before the coordinating conjunction.

How to use a Comma Question #4

Which sentence is properly punctuated with a comma?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. Don't use a comma to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. This is called a comma splice.

Comma Question #5

Identify the best way to punctuate the sentence.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. The comma represents the thousandths place of a number.

Commas Question #6

Identify the best way to punctuate the sentence.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Use additional commas as necessary to format addresses in a sentence.

How to use Commas
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Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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