The Quick and Easy Guide to Commas

Do Commas Give You Pause?

It seems that most writers struggle with commas. We worry about using too many or too few. We aren't sure when the comma is required, optional or unneeded. We waver between the "breath" rule and "when in doubt, leave it out." Adding to this anxiety is the variety of editing styles writers face. Is there an easy way to know when to use and when not to use the comma? I think so. While it may not cover every situation, this document is meant to give writers a simple guide to common comma usage.

Major Uses of Commas:

After an introductory clause or phrase, use a comma. However, the comma is optional if the introduction is very short.


Use commas to set off transitional phrases; for example, phrases that include "however," "therefore," "for example" and "in other words." Only use commas with transitional phrases at the beginning and middle of sentences.


Commas separate items in lists, inventories, and rosters used in a sentence. If your items are grouped (e.g., Laurel and Hardy), use the comma to set apart the group. The comma before the final conjunctive "and" is optional. Use it if it helps the reader. Do not use the comma before the first item or after the last item of a list.


Use commas to set off parenthetical or non-essential information, which may be adjective clauses and phrases, or appositives. However, if the clause or phrase significantly changes the meaning of the sentence, do not use a comma.


Commas should be used with conjunctions to join independent clauses, but they should not be used with dependent clauses. Sentences with very short independent clauses may not need a comma.


"Quotations, dates, addresses, and numbers," he stated, "All require the use of commas."


Other Comma Usage

There are other cases requiring commas. For a complete guide to comma usage, see The Bedford Handbook for Writers, or any other good grammar handbook.

Brevity, the Soul of Good Writing

In many of the examples given above, using a simpler sentence structure could eliminate confusion for the writer and reader. For example, independent clauses can be correctly joined to form a compound sentence. But it may be more effective to write the clauses as separate sentences. Choosing the simpler method usually makes your document easier for your reader to understand. And this is really the point of good writing, isn't it?

Written By: George Knox © 2017
E-mail: [email protected]