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Purdue OWL: Commas

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Extended Rules for Using Commas
S ummary: This resource offers a number of pages about comma use. Contributors:Dana Driscoll, Allen Brizee Last Edited: 2013-04-03 10:39:33

Comma Use
1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. T h eg a m ew a so v e r ,b u tt h ec r o w dr e f u s e dt ol e a v e . T h es t u d e n te x p l a i n e dh e rq u e s t i o n ,y e tt h ei n s t r u c t o rs t i l ld i d n ' ts e e mt o u n d e r s t a n d . Y e s t e r d a yw a sh e rb r o t h e r ' sb i r t h d a y ,s os h et o o kh i mo u tt od i n n e r .

2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause. a. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while. W h i l eIw a se a t i n g ,t h ec a ts c r a t c h e da tt h ed o o r . B e c a u s eh e ra l a r mc l o c kw a sb r o k e n ,s h ew a sl a t ef o rc l a s s . I fy o ua r ei l l ,y o uo u g h tt os e ead o c t o r . W h e nt h es n o ws t o p sf a l l i n g ,w e ' l ls h o v e lt h ed r i v e w a y .

However, don't put a comma after the main clause when a dependent (subordinate) clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast). I N C O R R E C T :T h ec a ts c r a t c h e da tt h ed o o r ,w h i l eIw a se a t i n g .

C O R R E C T :S h ew a ss t i l lq u i t eu p s e t ,a l t h o u g hs h eh a dw o nt h eO s c a r . (This comma use is correct because it is an example of extreme contrast.)
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b. Common introductory phrases that should be followed by a comma include participial and infinitive phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential appositive phrases, and long prepositional phrases (over four words). H a v i n gf i n i s h e dt h et e s t ,h el e f tt h er o o m . T og e tas e a t ,y o u ' db e t t e rc o m ee a r l y . A f t e rt h et e s tb u tb e f o r el u n c h ,Iw e n tj o g g i n g . T h es u nr a d i a t i n gi n t e n s eh e a t ,w es o u g h ts h e l t e ri nt h ec a f e .

c. Common introductory words that should be followed by a comma include yes, however, well. W e l l ,p e r h a p sh em e a n tn oh a r m . Y e s ,t h ep a c k a g es h o u l da r r i v et o m o r r o wm o r n i n g . H o w e v e r ,y o um a yn o tb es a t i s f i e dw i t ht h er e s u l t s .

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause. Here are some clues to help you decide whether the sentence element is essential: If you leave out the clause, phrase, or word, does the sentence still make sense? Does the clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence? If you move the element to a different position in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense? If you answer "yes" to one or more of these questions, then the element in question is nonessential and should be set off with commas. Here are some example sentences with nonessential elements: C l a u s e :T h a tT u e s d a y ,w h i c hh a p p e n st ob em yb i r t h d a y ,i st h eo n l yd a yw h e n Ia ma v a i l a b l et om e e t . P h r a s e :T h i sr e s t a u r a n th a sa ne x c i t i n ga t m o s p h e r e .T h ef o o d ,o nt h eo t h e r h a n d ,i sr a t h e rb l a n d . W o r d :Ia p p r e c i a t ey o u rh a r dw o r k .I nt h i sc a s e ,h o w e v e r ,y o us e e mt oh a v e o v e r e x e r t e dy o u r s e l f .

4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. That clauses following a verb expressing mental action are always essential. That clauses after nouns: T h eb o o kt h a tIb o r r o w e df r o my o ui se x c e l l e n t . T h ea p p l e st h a tf e l lo u to ft h eb a s k e ta r eb r u i s e d .

That clauses following a verb expressing mental action:
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Purdue OWL: Commas

S h eb e l i e v e st h a ts h ew i l lb ea b l et oe a r na nA . H ei sd r e a m i n gt h a th ec a nf l y . Ic o n t e n dt h a ti tw a sw r o n gt om i s l e a dh e r . T h e yw i s h e dt h a tw a r mw e a t h e rw o u l df i n a l l ya r r i v e .

Examples of other essential elements (no commas): S t u d e n t sw h oc h e a to n l yh a r mt h e m s e l v e s . T h eb a b yw e a r i n gay e l l o wj u m p s u i ti sm yn i e c e . T h ec a n d i d a t ew h oh a dt h el e a s tm o n e yl o s tt h ee l e c t i o n .

Examples of nonessential elements (set off by commas): F r e d ,w h oo f t e nc h e a t s ,i sj u s th a r m i n gh i m s e l f . M yn i e c e ,w e a r i n gay e l l o wj u m p s u i t ,i sp l a y i n gi nt h el i v i n gr o o m . T h eG r e e np a r t yc a n d i d a t e ,w h oh a dt h el e a s tm o n e y ,l o s tt h ee l e c t i o n . A p p l e s ,w h i c ha r em yf a v o r i t ef r u i t ,a r et h em a i ni n g r e d i e n ti nt h i s r e c i p e . P r o f e s s o rB e n s o n ,g r i n n i n gf r o me a rt oe a r ,a n n o u n c e dt h a tt h ee x a mw o u l d b et o m o r r o w . T o m ,t h ec a p t a i no ft h et e a m ,w a si n j u r e di nt h eg a m e . I ti su pt oy o u ,J a n e ,t of i n i s h . S h ew a s ,h o w e v e r ,t o ot i r e dt om a k et h et r i p . T w oh u n d r e dd o l l a r s ,It h i n k ,i ss u f f i c i e n t .

5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series. T h eC o n s t i t u t i o ne s t a b l i s h e st h el e g i s l a t i v e ,e x e c u t i v e ,a n dj u d i c i a l b r a n c h e so fg o v e r n m e n t . T h ec a n d i d a t ep r o m i s e dt ol o w e rt a x e s ,p r o t e c tt h ee n v i r o n m e n t ,r e d u c e c r i m e ,a n de n du n e m p l o y m e n t . T h ep r o s e c u t o ra r g u e dt h a tt h ed e f e n d a n t ,w h ow a sa tt h es c e n eo ft h e c r i m e ,w h oh a das t r o n gr e v e n g em o t i v e ,a n dw h oh a da c c e s st ot h em u r d e r w e a p o n ,w a sg u i l t yo fh o m i c i d e .

6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal ("co"-ordinate) status in describing the noun; neither adjective is subordinate to the other. You can decide if two adjectives in a row are coordinate by asking the following questions: Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written in reverse order?
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Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written with and between them? If you answer yes to these questions, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. Here are some examples of coordinate and non-coordinate adjectives: H ew a sad i f f i c u l t ,s t u b b o r nc h i l d . (coordinate)

T h e yl i v e di naw h i t ef r a m eh o u s e . (non-coordinate)

S h eo f t e nw o r eag r a yw o o ls h a w l . (non-coordinate)

Y o u rc o u s i nh a sa ne a s y ,h a p p ys m i l e . (coordinate)

The 1) relentless, 2) powerful 3) summer sun beat down on them. (1-2 are coordinate; 2-3 are non-coordinate.) The 1) relentless, 2) powerful, 3) oppressive sun beat down on them. (Both 1-2 and 2-3 are coordinate.) 7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift. H ew a sm e r e l yi g n o r a n t ,n o ts t u p i d . T h ec h i m p a n z e es e e m e dr e f l e c t i v e ,a l m o s th u m a n . Y o u ' r eo n eo ft h es e n a t o r ' sc l o s ef r i e n d s ,a r e n ' ty o u ? T h es p e a k e rs e e m e di n n o c e n t ,e v e ng u l l i b l e .

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer to the beginning or middle of the sentence. S uch phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion. (If the placement of the modifier causes confusion, then it is not "free" and must remain "bound" to the word it modifies.)

N a n c yw a v e de n t h u s i a s t i c a l l ya tt h ed o c k i n gs h i p ,l a u g h i n g j o y o u s l y . (correct)

I N C O R R E C T : L i s aw a v e da tN a n c y ,l a u g h i n gj o y o u s l y . (Who is laughing, Lisa or Nancy?) L a u g h i n gj o y o u s l y ,L i s aw a v e da tN a n c y . (correct)

L i s aw a v e da tN a n c y ,w h ow a sl a u g h i n gj o y o u s l y . (correct)

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9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

B i r m i n g h a m ,A l a b a m a ,g e t si t sn a m ef r o mB i r m i n g h a m ,E n g l a n d .

J u l y2 2 ,1 9 5 9 ,w a sam o m e n t o u sd a yi nh i sl i f e .W h ol i v e sa t1 6 0 0 P e n n s y l v a n i aA v e n u e ,W a s h i n g t o n ,D C ?

R a c h e lB .L a k e ,M D ,w i l lb et h ep r i n c i p a ls p e a k e r .

(When you use just the month and the year, no comma is necessary after the month or year: "The average temperatures for July 1998 are the highest on record for that month.")

10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation. J o h ns a i dw i t h o u te m o t i o n ," I ' l ls e ey o ut o m o r r o w . " " Iw a sa b l e , "s h ea n s w e r e d ," t oc o m p l e t et h ea s s i g n m e n t . " I n1 8 4 8 ,M a r xw r o t e ," W o r k e r so ft h ew o r l d ,u n i t e ! "

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading. T oG e o r g e ,H a r r i s o nh a db e e nas o r to fi d o l .

Comma abuse
Commas in the wrong places can break a sentence into illogical segments or confuse readers with unnecessary and unexpected pauses. 12. Don't use a comma to separate the subject from the verb. I N C O R R E C T :A ne i g h t e e n y e a ro l di nC a l i f o r n i a ,i sn o wc o n s i d e r e da na d u l t . I N C O R R E C T :T h em o s ti m p o r t a n ta t t r i b u t eo fab a l lp l a y e r ,i sq u i c kr e f l e x a c t i o n s .

13. Don't put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate. I N C O R R E C T :W el a i do u to u rm u s i ca n ds n a c k s ,a n db e g a nt os t u d y . I N C O R R E C T :It u r n e dt h ec o r n e r ,a n dr a ns m a c ki n t oap a t r o lc a r .

14. Don't put a comma between the two nouns, noun phrases, or noun clauses in a compound subject or compound object.
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I N C O R R E C T( c o m p o u n ds u b j e c t ) :T h em u s i ct e a c h e rf r o my o u rh i g hs c h o o l ,a n d t h ef o o t b a l lc o a c hf r o mm i n ea r em a r r i e d . I N C O R R E C T( c o m p o u n do b j e c t ) :J e f ft o l dm et h a tt h ej o bw a ss t i l la v a i l a b l e , a n dt h a tt h em a n a g e rw a n t e dt oi n t e r v i e wm e .

15. Don't put a comma after the main clause when a dependent (subordinate) clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast). I N C O R R E C T :T h ec a ts c r a t c h e da tt h ed o o r ,w h i l eIw a se a t i n g .

C O R R E C T :S h ew a ss t i l lq u i t eu p s e t ,a l t h o u g hs h eh a dw o nt h eO s c a r . (This comma use is correct because it is an example of extreme contrast)

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