Comma Rules

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Note: More rules will be added later, but those that are present are accurate.

__1__ Place commas between 3 or more words, phrases, dependent clauses, and independent clauses in series. The last comma is often omitted, but we err on the side of caution and include it (unless the client makes a special request).

Although her best-known work is Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë also wrote Shirley, Villette, and The Professor.

My friends Sally, George, and Lisa live at the house on the corner of Fleet Avenue and Main Street, the green house next door to me, and the house across the street from the pharmacy, respectively.

In King of California, Charlie leaves the mental institution in which he had been placed, searches for buried treasure, and enlists his daughter’s aid in digging it up.

At the gardening club activity, Sue weeded the garden we planted last week, Miranda planted seeds in the new garden, and Laurie watered both plots.

__2__ Set introductory words or phrases off with commas (except but and yet).

a. Transitional phrases

In fact, the seemingly happy couple fought like cats and dogs.

b. Adverbial dependent clauses

Since the trains stopped running, Sue has been forced to walk to work.

c. Prepositional phrases

At the time, Jianhao did not know the mysterious woman, but he would soon fall madly in love with her.

d. Adverbial elements

Consequently, war ripped through the country.

Thus, drinking chocolate milk could kill you.


I was not afraid. Yet I ran.

But what about me?

e. Participial phrases

Having danced all night, I fell asleep in the car on the way home from the ball.

f. Infinitive phrases

To encourage the free exchange of ideas, the mediator allowed participants to call out comments without raising their hands first.

g. Appositives

A woman of great integrity, Senator Adams refused the oil magnate’s bribe.

h. Absolute constructions

Their eyes opened wide in shock, the day-care center teachers watched the little boy running around the room buck naked.

__3__ Use a comma between two coordinate adjectives (as opposed to cumulative adjectives*) preceding a noun

Beautiful, fascinating Hua Li was a hit at every party she attended.

From the hot stuffy room in which I sat editing the interminable, unintelligible paper, the 12-story-high balcony seemed like freedom.

The ancient stone cathedral evoked in people confusing, discordant feelings.

The tired, hungry vagrant welcomed the shelter’s hospitality.

To determine whether two adjacent adjectives are coordinate,

a. Insert and between them

b. Reverse them

If the resulting sentence makes sense (seems natural) in both cases, the adjectives are coordinate. Otherwise, they are cumulative.

__4__ Place a comma between two independent clauses separated by and, but, or, yet, so, and nor.

Apples have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-bacterial agents, so an apple a day does truly keep the doctor away.

Even though New York state has stringent requirements for driver’s permits and allows them to be used as driver’s licenses for identification purposes, the federal government will not accept them as proof of identity when applying for a passport, but the U.S. Passport Agency Web site does not include that information.

Homer Simpson is a loud, obnoxious, selfish, and overweight lout with below-average intelligence, yet Marge Simpson will never divorce him.

Determined to gain admission into Stanford, I studied hard, and I volunteered at the high school writing center.

__5__ Set off terminal dependent clauses when they represent a reversal or are explanatory in nature (and begin with for or as).

We celebrated with ice cream, although we lost the championship game.

Having read the rules for Scrabble, I knew that John could not use “Batman,for proper nouns are not allowed.

__6__ Set off interruptive or parenthetical elements, that is, elements that are not essential to the sentence’s meaning, e.g., single words (however, therefore, though, thus, perhaps, indeed, etc.), transitional phrases (for example, as a result, of course, in fact, etc.), and non-essential dependent clauses (clauses beginning with who, when, or where that supply extra details, etc.).

The organization should, nevertheless, continue its efforts despite this recent disappointment.

That reasoning, as mentioned above, does not hold water.

The red bridge in Springfield, where I overcame my fear of heights, is currently under construction.

Appositives are parenthetical elements that rename the referent (noun).

On my last birthday, the rainiest day of the year, my friends and I went to see a movie.

Judy, John’s mother, headed up the PTA.

An explanatory interrupter consists of or and a noun or noun phrase and renames or clarifies the noun immediately preceding it.

The clap, or gonorrhea, is a serious venereal disease.

Exception: Some single-word interrupters and short-phrase interrupters are customarily used without commas, particularly when the interrupter comes after a verb or when it is placed between an auxiliary verb and a main verb.

To the hungry travelers, the food was indeed welcome.

Fighting is therefore likely to break out between the factions.

I have also tried sushi.

__7__ Place a comma before sentence-ending participial phrases (unless they are essential to the sentence’s meaning)

Sara uses neither mascara nor lipstick, preferring instead an au naturel look.

The red house on March Street is five stories tall, making it the tallest house in Springfield.


Danceworks held a recital featuring 20 of its best dancers.

__8__ Set off the names of people or groups being addressed with commas

Billy, I have something to tell you.

__9__ Place a comma (or exclamation mark) after an interjection

Wow, I love your bike!

Whew, we were nearly caught.

__10__ Use a comma to indicate that some words have been intentionally left out (elliptical constructions), as the writer believes the reader will be able to fill in the missing word(s)

In 1999 Bob won two awards; in 2000, three; in 2001, two; and in 2002, five.

__11__ Place a comma after a short phrase involving some form of to be when a nominative dependent clause follows. In such cases, the comma takes the place of that

The trouble is, children prefer candy to vegetables.

Equally acceptable

The trouble is that children prefer candy to vegetables.

__12__ Do not place a comma before the second half of a correlative-conjunction pair (not only...but also, not...but, either...or, or neither...nor) unless each half is followed by an independent clause

A good lover not only accepts but also treasures his or her beloved’s flaws.

Not only did the monster exist, but also it was under the child’s bed.

Either you are a winner, or you are a loser.

__13__ Always set off namely, i.e., that is, e.g., and for example with commas

I like cartoons for adults, e.g., The Simpsons, South Park, and The Boondocks.

__14__ Separate the two halves of phrases like the simpler the better when each is a long phrase or clause

The simpler the better.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

__15__ Separate the consecutive use of the same word with a comma

What it is, is a travesty.

__16__ Set off contrasting phrases with commas

Butters and Tweek, not Kyle, Stan, Cartman, or Kenny, are my favorite South Park characters.

__17__ Place a comma after a clause of attribution (e.g., he stated) when a full-sentence direct quotation follows and place the first word of the direct quotation in uppercase

The giant bellowed,"Fee Fie Foe Fum!"

Do not place a comma after a clause of attribution when that follows and do not place the first word of the direct quotation in uppercase

The boy told them that "the Hula-Hoop was not fun."

In fact, avoid the above construction except in cases where the direct quotation is not a complete sentence

Mr. Burns, the wealthiest person in Springfield, said that "goldbrickers...layabouts....[and] slug-a-beds" filled his nuclear power plant.

__18__ When a date includes a month, a day, and a year and appears at the beginning or middle of a sentence, place a comma after the year

June 11, 1975, was a red-letter day, for that was the day that the story about the U.S. government's secret mind control experiments involving LSD broke.

Elizabeth I was born on September 7, 1533, and died on March 24, 1603.

However, do not

1. place a comma between a month and a year

2. place a comma between a season and a year

3. place a comma after dates formatted in the following way (day month year)

__19__Do not place a comma between the two parts expressing a person's height when given in feet and inches

Susie was five feet five inches tall.

*Cumulative adjectives do not individually modify a noun. Rather, the second adjective modifies the noun and the first adjective modifies the second adjective and noun as a unit.

Therefore, in the sentence He wore a new felt hat, felt modifies hat, and new modifies felt hat.

If we test the adjectives to determine whether they are coordinate (as suggested in #3), they fail.

1. Insert and between the adjectives.

He wore a new and felt hat.

2. Reverse the adjectives.

He wore a felt new hat.

Here are some more examples of cumulative adjectives.

a warm spring breeze

the sweet seven-note melody

a small Christmas tree

six purple cars

a spiffy blue sweater

a unique artistic style