Grammar 9 min read

How to Use Commas in Your Writing

When looking at how to use commas 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.

A period is the button that ends the game.

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Main Takeaways:

  • A comma is a punctuation mark that creates a soft pause.
  • A comma separates words, not letters.
  • You can also separate numbers or indicate the thousands place with commas.
  • The Oxford comma makes lists easier to understand.
  • Independent clauses don’t get commas.
  • Comma splices occur when you use commas in place of periods or semicolons.
  • Use a comma before conjunctions when they separate two independent clauses.

Commas are confusing, so in this post, we will teach you how to properly use commas in your writing. You might think that this little punctuation means nothing, but wait until you learn about the Oxford comma.

Our info-packed guide covers basic comma rules and includes plenty of examples. We’re here for you, whether you’re confused by comma splices or need help punctuating clauses.

What Is a Comma?

A comma is a punctuation mark. It looks like an apostrophe, but it appears at the bottom of a word rather than the top. Unlike an apostrophe, you use a comma to separate words, not letters. You place a comma between some clauses, conjunctions, and introductory words.

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

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.

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.

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.

When used correctly, a comma helps separate items in a list. You can also use a comma before introductory clauses, which begin with words such as because, after, or when.

What Is the Oxford Comma?

An Oxford comma, also called a serial comma, appears in a list of three or more items. You place it before the coordinating conjunction. You may have heard jokes about how you can pry an Oxford comma from a writer’s cold, dead, and lifeless hands. In written form, this joke helps remind writers where to place an Oxford 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.
Some writers omit Oxford commas because style guides or publications don’t allow it. However, this can cause confusion.
Sarah had lunch with her best friend, a butterfly collector and an unfaithful spouse.

This sentence makes it sound like Sarah’s best friend collects butterflies and cheats on her husband. However, Sarah actually dined with three different people. She could have clarified this with an Oxford comma.

Still aren’t convinced commas are essential?

Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy won a legal battle against the company in 2017 due to Oxford comma omission. The company argued it shouldn’t pay these drivers overtime, but employees said a missing comma made guidelines confusing.

It’s important to know how to use commas in your writing so you can avoid communication errors.

Dependent and Independent Clauses: When to Use Commas

Independent clauses can stand alone, so they don’t need a comma unless you include a conjunction. Dependent clauses typically require a comma when you combine them with an independent clause.

An independent clause is part of a sentence that can stand alone. In the sentence, “Susie loves butter and puts it on everything,” the independent clause is, “Susie loves better.” The dependent clause is “puts it on everything” because it doesn’t make sense without the first half of the sentence (so it depends on the first half—get it?)

Don’t use a comma to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. This is called a comma splice.
Jeff plays basketball, he loves the sport.
Jeff plays basketball, and he loves the sport.

The first example contains a comma splice. The second example is correct because you joined the clauses with a conjunction.

When Should You Use Commas With Conjunctions?

A comma separates two independent clauses when a conjunction joins them. Examples of conjunctions include and, but, and or. Sometimes the conjunctions referenced above appear at the beginning of a sentence. When this happens, the conjunctions also require a comma.

Conjunction placement determines comma placement. A comma goes after a conjunction when a conjunction begins a sentence. However, you should place a comma before a conjunction when separating two independent clauses.

But do you always need a comma before and? Not always, especially when it joins an independent and dependent clause. You can also avoid a comma before and when you write a list of two items.

I bought soda and chocolate.
John hung out with Marco and Lamont.
Ella plays tennis and golf.

These sentences are easy to understand precisely how they’re written. You don’t need a comma for clarification.

Some conjunctions are tricky. Do you need a comma before because?

It depends on the sentence.

Add a comma when your meaning is unclear without one.

Lolita didn’t leave because she was afraid.

This sentence is confusing. Did she leave for different reasons? Or did she stay because she was scared to go?

A comma can provide clarification. If we say, “Lolita didn’t leave, because she was afraid,” we know Lolita stayed due to fear.

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.

You might also be wondering whether to use a comma before “though.” The word though is an adverb which means nevertheless or however. You can also use it as a conjunction.

Commas are generally optional with though, but some writers prefer them.

I prefer the bus. I rode my bike, though.
She ran a 5K for fun, though sometimes she doubts her dedication to fitness.
I had pizza for dinner though I wanted spaghetti.
Comma rules are subjective for though. Check your style guide if you’re writing an essay for school or doing a project for a client.

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.

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

  • 1,234
  • 13,579
  • 35,777
  • 70,162
  • 100,000
  • 500,000
  • 999,999

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

Should You Use Commas in Addresses?

Some of us still send snail mail. It’s important to format your address correctly if you’re shipping a package or mailing a letter. In the United States, addresses typically require a comma between the city and state.

Jolie Joverson

123 Your Street

St. Louis, MO 63114

Additional commas are needed when formatting an address in a sentence.

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

In the sentence above, we separated different parts of Jolie Joverson’s address with commas.

Commas are tricky, but you can use them correctly by following our helpful suggestions.

Read More: When to Use Comma Before Such As: the Definitive Guide

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Krista Grace Morris

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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