Communication skills

The correct use of commas

- April 27, 2010 3 MIN READ

Commas aid clarity, prevent ambiguity and indicate where you need to pause. Often you can tell if you need a comma by reading your work out loud. Here we look at the correct use of commas.

We tend to use more minimal punctuation today than we did in the past, and editors don’t always agree about whether a comma is necessary. Sometimes, if the meaning is clear either way, commas are a matter of personal preference.

At other times, commas – or the lack of them – can change the meaning. Some examples are:

A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman, without her, man is nothing.

He wasn’t killed mercifully.
He wasn’t killed, mercifully.

Writing clearly isn’t easy.
Writing, clearly, isn’t easy.

In all of the above examples, commas are used to prevent confusion. Here are some other guidelines to help you with the correct use of commas.

To separate items

Use commas to separate items in a series or list within a sentence, as in this example:

The details required are name, date of birth, address and phone number.

To provide extra information

Commas are used to set apart incidental or extra information that could be removed from the sentence without fundamentally changing its meaning. (These clauses are known as non-restrictive or non-defining). Compare:

All players who are now back in town deny the charges.
All players, who are now back in town, deny the charges.

Note that in the first example, there could be other players who are not back in town – there is no need for commas here. In the second example, all players deny the charges and, incidentally, they are all back in town. You need the commas in this sentence.

If the extra information is in the middle of the sentence, you must put a comma at either end. Often the extra information is introduced by the words whichwho or while. For example:

The report, which we filed on Friday, was incomplete.

To separate clauses

You can use a comma to separate two independent clauses or ideas when they’re joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

For example:

The proposal looked promising, but some information was missing.

In my opinion, there is often no need for these commas if the meaning is clear without them.

Want more articles like this? Check out the business writing section.

After introductory statements

Use commas after introductory statements. For example:

On Tuesday 4 September, we plan to discuss the new housing development.

Although it rained all weekend, the convention was still held.

I’ve noticed that some writers are now omitting such commas if the meaning is clear.

When a string of adjectives appear before a noun

The shrub has large, serrated, shiny, heart-shaped leaves.

Commas with adjectives are not always necessary if the sentence makes sense without them. As a rule of thumb, if you can reverse the order of the adjectives, use a comma. If you can’t reverse the order, you don’t need a comma. For example, compare:

The room was damp, dirty and untidy.

The girl had bright blue eyes and dark red hair.

To avoid repeating words unnecessarily

In 2000 there were seven cases; in 1999, five; and in 1998, four.

To prevent confusion at the end of a list

A comma is sometimes needed between the last two items in a list. This is known as the serial or Oxford comma.

They should seek the support of landholders, philanthropists, government, and community and industry groups.

An urban myth tells the story of a woman who left her estate to Jane, William, Mary and Anne. Jane and William argued that the estate should be divided into three, with Mary and Anne sharing a third. Use of an Oxford comma (Jane, William, Mary, and Anne) would have prevented this dispute.

For titles

Commas separate names from titles.

Ms Marika Weinberg, chief executive officer, presented the prizes.

If the title comes before the name, you don’t need commas, but most organisations use initial capitals (this is a question of style).

Managing Director John Smith proved an able leader.

Around ‘interrupters’

Use commas before and after words and phrases that ‘interrupt’ the sentence. For example:

He is, however, going to sit the exam again.

She agreed, reluctantly, to re-sit the exam. 

Come across any comma conundrums lately? Submit your curly questions about the correct use of commas below.

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