A comma is often the most misused punctuation mark. When we don’t know where they belong, we tend to leave them out or stick them in sentences where they shouldn’t go.
Here’s the down and dirty on commas and some quick tips to help you out. With examples, of course!
Did you know the presence or absence of a comma can change the meaning of the sentence?
- Let’s eat Grandma should be Let’s eat, Grandma. (What, or who, is for dinner?)
- Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage should be Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage. (Who’s worrying about the luggage?)
- We’re going to learn to cut and paste kids should be We’re going to learn to cut and paste, kids.
- I love my parents, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie should be I love my parents, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. (Are celebrities my parents?)
- We order merchandise and sell products OR We order, merchandise and sell products.
When should (and shouldn’t) we use commas?
- In numbers (other than years, addresses and page numbers)
- YES: He owns 2,800 baseball cards.
- YES: The machine weighs 13, 567 pounds.
- In direct address
- YES: Mary, you really helped me today.
- Dates with a day listed
- YES: On June 19, 2017, HGR had an Aisle 1 flash sale.
- But, NOT between the month and year with no day: In June 2017, HGR had a flash sale.
- When listing places
- YES: He is from Atlanta, Georgia, but moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he graduated from high school.
- In lists containing three or more items, unless there are commas used within the list and not before the last item in the list unless it needs the comma to be understood
- Simple series: He likes welding, machining and woodworking.
- Comma needed before last item since it all belongs together: For lunch she likes to eat salad, soup, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Semicolons needed because there are commas within some items in the series: On weekends, I do my chores; sleep in; read books, the newspaper and Facebook posts; and go shopping.
- With multiple adjectives that modify the same noun
- YES: It was a hot, frustrating, dangerous trip. (All adjectives modify “trip.”)
- NO: He bought the boy a bright red balloon. (The balloon isn’t smart/bright. The balloon is bright red.)
- With adjectives where the order is interchangeable
- YES: He is a smart, kind child OR He is a kind, smart child.
- NO: We stayed at an expensive summer resort because you couldn’t say, We stayed at a summer expensive resort.
- Setting off nonessential information
- NO: Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers was one of my favorites. (No commas since Dumas wrote more than one novel. We need the information in the sentence to tell us which one.)
- YES: Dumas’ first novel, Captain Paul, does not interest me. (Since he only had one first novel, the name is not essential.)
- YES: Gina, marketing communications specialist, writes great grammar tips. (My title doesn’t matter to understanding the sentence.
- YES: Your work has been, quite honestly, outstanding. (The interrupting words aren’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence.)
- In compound sentences joining two independent sentences together with and, but, or, nor, yet, so and for when they are used as coordinating conjunctions. (See, you need to know your parts of speech and how they function in a sentence!)
- YES: She came to work, but she went home sick.
- YES: Are you going to the party, or are you staying home?
- YES: The dog wanted all my attention, and the cat was jealous.
- NOT in simple sentence that do not combine two independent sentences:
- She purchased the car but did not get it rustproofed.
- Are you mowing the lawn or painting the window frames this weekend?
- In complex sentences that have an independent clause (or sentence) and a dependent clause that is not a complete sentence, if it comes before the independent clause:
- If you are tired, you should take a nap OR You should take a nap if you are tired.
- Because of the power outage, we went home early OR We went home early because of the power outage.
- In a compound-complex sentence: Because of the power outage, I went home early, and, because I was tired, I took a nap.
- To set off a quote
- He said, “She is an asset to the company.”
- “Please,” Mary asked, “could you pick up lunch for me?”
If you prefer learning by video, here’s a good one on YouTube about “How to use commas correctly.”