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Do You Know When To Use Commas?

Do you know when to use commas? Not everyone is clear about the use of this punctuation mark, even though it may be their most favourite one to use. I love using the comma and sometimes tend to overuse it.  Nevertheless, I am aware that too many commas can slow your writing down and make your clauses stall, fall over and put your reader right off.

In most writing courses you’ll be told that commas indicate a very short pause and shouldn’t take the place of a full stop (or be used when you don’t know what other punctuation mark will fit).  You’ll be told to write shorter snappier sentences, rather than long, flowery ones with several associated clauses.  The best way to know when to use a comma is to read your writing out loud and insert them in places where you pause (and intend for your reader to pause) naturally.

See this writing tips page for more articles like this one.

When to use commas

1. Use a comma before your quotation marks for direct speech

Daniella said, “I really love that sleeveless blouse. Does it come in pink?”

I’ve seen a full stop used after ‘said’ in sentences with a direct speech. This is incorrect. If you’re confused just remember that ‘Daniella said,’ and her actual speech are put together to make one complete sentence.  The words ‘Daniella said’ cannot make up a complete sentence by themselves therefore, should not be followed by a full stop.

2. Use a comma for list making

I’ve mostly packed my suitcase for my trip, but I still need to put in some shirts, a sun hat, sun cream, sandals and a wash bag.

There is no comma after ‘sandals’ because ‘and’ is usually replaced by the comma in lists. You have one or the other and don’t need both.  Having said this, years ago I did some studies with an American physicist who insisted that I needed a comma before the ‘and’. Having had a British education and being UK trained to teach English, I found that strange as this was not something I was taught to do. If you’re American you may disagree with the omission of the comma after the word, ‘sandals’.

3. Use a comma to separate two or more adjectives which refer to a particular noun

Her curries tend to be chewy, thick, cold and tasteless.

The adjectives (describing words) referring to the curry are in fact, parts of a list. Like number two above, they would require commas to separate them.

4. Use a comma when you put a phrase into a sentence to give more explanation

We sometimes add an explanatory phrase to make a sentence clearer. When we use this trick in our writing, we must enclose this phrase in commas. For example, look at the sentence below.

When he broke my purple stilettos I became very upset.

We could make this sentence clearer to the reader and explain that I was upset over my broken shoes because they were brand new.

When he broke my purple stilettos, which were brand new, I became very upset.

To test yourself to make sure you’ve put the commas in the right places, try taking out the enclosed phrase.  If the sentence still makes complete sense (without this phrase) then you’ve done the right thing.  We will deal with dashes and brackets (which are used in the same way as commas in most cases) in another lesson.

As an aside, writing clear, concise sentences is admirable.  Sometimes however, this can become boring if it’s all you do.  Add a bit of spice with a different approach.  For example, use clauses and commas to add interest to your writing. Look at the sentences below.

(a) Her daughter is very mature for her age.

(b) Her daughter, a child born a week before her father’s death, is very mature for her age.

The former is a fine, complete statement. The second is a sentence offering your reader a possible answer for the girl’s maturity. It also leaves readers wanting more by creating additional questions about the man’s death.

5. Use a comma with these conjunctions

We can’t help but use conjunctions in our writing, as they are an integral part to expressing ourselves colourfully. I will not deal with conjunctions here because this is not a tutorial on parts of speech. However, I’ll mention four we’re all bound to use in everyday writing.  They are: of course, however, therefore and nevertheless.  (Note: most conjunctions – coordinating or subordinating – do not need commas).

These tutorials, of course, are not all inclusive

These tutorials will, however, give you a sound starting point to writing English correctly.

You will, therefore, need to do further in-depth studies to advance in your work.

You have, nevertheless, been given some good pointers on the use of commas.

When To Use The Full Stop

This punctuation mark is also discussed in this post more fully.  The full stop is probably the easiest punctuation mark to use, as it dictates the end of a thought/sentence and commands the longest pause.

1. Use a full stop to end a sentence

As everyone knows, a full stop ends a sentence.  A capital letter is then used to start a new sentence.

2. Use a full stop after an abbreviation

When you use a full stop after an abbreviation, you do not need a capital letter to start the next word unless, of course, it is a proper noun which naturally needs a capital letter.

Anne Lyken-Garner is a published author, (her inspirational book, Sunday’s Child is available on Kindle), freelance writer and editor. She also blogs at How To Build Confidence. If you need an editor, Anne can help you with this. 

Category: writing

11 Comments on "Do You Know When To Use Commas?"


Welcome! I'm Bamidele Onibalusi, a young writer and blogger. I believe writers are unique and highly talented individuals that should be given the respect they deserve. This blog offers practical advice to help you become truly in charge of your writing career.

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