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Top Four Guidelines for Using Commas Effectively

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In a Time magazine essay, "In Praise of the Humble Comma," author Pico Iyer compares the comma to "a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down." But when do we need to flash that light, and when is it better to let the sentence ride on through without interruption? Here we'll consider four main guidelines for using commas effectively. But keep in mind that these are only guidelines: there are no unbreakable rules for using commas--or any other marks of punctuation.

1. Use a Comma Before a Coordinator

Use a comma before a coordinator (and, but, yet, or, nor, for, so) that links two main clauses:

"The optimist thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist knows it."
(Robert Oppenheimer)

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try."
(Beverly Sills)
However, do not use a comma before a coordinator that links two words or phrases:
"Jack and Diane sang and danced all night."

2. Use a Comma to Separate Items in a Series

Use a comma between words, phrases, or clauses that appear in a series of three or more:

"You get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected."
(Arlo Guthrie)

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
(Mark Twain)
Notice that in each example a comma appears before but not after the coordinator.

3. Use a Comma After an Introductory Word Group

Use a comma after a phrase or clause that precedes the subject of the sentence:

"When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on."
(Franklin Roosevelt)

"If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style."
(Quentin Crisp)
However, if there's no danger of confusing readers, you may omit the comma after a short introductory phrase:
"At first I thought the challenge was staying awake, so I guzzled venti cappuccinos and 20-ounce Mountain Dews."

4. Use a Pair of Commas to Set Off Interruptions

Use a pair of commas to set off words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence:

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
(Rudyard Kipling)

"Literature is all, or mostly, about sex."
(Anthony Burgess)
But don't use commas to set off words that directly affect the essential meaning of the sentence:
"Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."
(Samuel Johnson)

Also see the discussion of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses at Building Sentences with Adjective Clauses.

For practice in applying these four guidelines, see:

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Grammar & Composition
  4. Punctuation & Mechanics
  5. Guidelines for Using Commas Effectively - Tips for Using Commas Correctly

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