“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

Three Times You Should Use a Comma

We’ve covered when not to use commas (and when to use commas if you feel like it), but it’s just as important to know when to use commas. We can’t have run-on sentences taking over literature. So when do you use a comma?

When Should You Use a Comma

Photo by JD Hancock

We’ve already covered the Oxford comma and the need for commas in a series or list. There are three other primary times when you need to use a comma. Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list; just the times when comma use is most common.

You Should Use a Comma…

1. When connecting two sentences with a coordinating conjunction.

James loves his dog. His dog loves eating weird things. To combine those sentences, use a comma with a conjunction. James loves his dog, and his dog loves eating weird things.

2. When adding words or phrases to the beginning or end of your main sentence.

Joan dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder. If we wanted to modify that sentence with a word or phrase before or after it, we’d add a comma between the modifier and the main sentence. Oddly, Joan dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder. Joan dreams of becoming a professional bodybuilder, even though her mother would prefer she become a dental hygienist.

3. On both sides of a nonessential part of the sentence.

Any time you add extra details to a sentence that are not necessary for comprehension, add commas on either side of that extra phrase. Jessica, whose sister had trained her to scream at the sight of blood,  shrieked at the top of her lungs when she saw Jake’s ketchup-covered arm. The sentence is still completely understandable without the clause enclosed in commas (Jessica shrieked at the top of her lungs when she saw Jake’s ketchup-covered arm.). The clause just adds extra context, and since it is not essential, you would surround it with commas.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and write about a competitive scenario: a state championship soccer game, a Super Bowl, a sixth-grade spelling bee. Use commas appropriately when describing what’s going through the players’/spectators’/anxious parents’ heads, and when describing the action that’s taking place.

Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow practicers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • LarryBlumen

    I type slower than I think, so I put too many commas in at first, and then, on rereading what I’ve written, I take most of them out.

  • Ok, this one trips me up: are names considered superfluous information in a sentence to be separated by commas?

    His father, Doug, ate pizza.
    Does that make it look like we’re clarifying because he has more than one father?

    Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises bores me to death wouldn’t have commas because it’s necessary to say which novel we’re discussing, right?

    I used to understand this. Then someone challenged me. Now I have no confidence in my knowledge anymore.

    Katie

  • Marianne Vest

    The spelling bee was that afternoon at one o’clock. Dorothy had been practicing with her daughter, Alice, who was in fifth grade. Alice had always gotten A’s on her spelling tests, her vocabulary tests, and her reading tests. She was not good with math, but she excelled at anything connected to language, both English and Spanish.
    Dorothy had put on a suit to go to the bee, but then decided that the suit was too formal , and changed to a dress and sweater jut before they left. She took some flash cards for Alice to look at in the car. They had been preparing for this for months, doing drills after dinner each evening, and going over flash cards during the commercials on TV.
    Alice who was not as concerned with the entire process as Dorothy had dressed in her usual jeans, teeshirt, flip-flops, and hoodie.
    “You can’t wear that,” said Dorothy when she saw her daughter. “You need to wear a dress.”
    “No Mom,” was Alice’s terse reply.
    They got to the school auditorium, and Alice immediately disappeared amid a flock of friends, who were hearing toward the stage.
    Once the bee began it was all Dorothy could do to not bite her nails. She kept feeling her hand moving toward her mouth but clenched her fist in her lap and tapped her foot on the floor.
    The man next to her was almost asleep before the bee finally got underway. Dorothy was astounded at his lack of interest.

    Ran out of time here. Also now that I’m using Scrivener, the format disappears when I post here.

    • I feel bad for Alice and the pressure her mother is putting on her to do well. This is probably because it’s a horrible reality that’s all too common in today’s world. 🙁

      Katie

  • Holli Keaton

    The game was tied, and the clock was running down. I couldn’t believe that everything was coming down to these last moments. Every late night practice, every run, every suicide, every fan–all of Troy University’s basketball season was wrapped up in this final championship game. Likely, it was wrapped up in this final drive I was making down the court. What if I left them all down? I didn’t have time to think like this though. I have to score that three-point shot. If I don’t, well, there is no if I don’t. I can’t afford that line of thinking.
    So here I was, dribbling down the court, weaving in between my sweaty opponents. I felt like the game was traveling in slow motion. I could hear each dribble of the ball loud and clear. The noise of the crowd cheering had become a muted background. Each shoe that squeaked, each elbow I nudged, each dribble–I could hear it echoed in the room. I was certain my heart was about to jump out of my chest, as I took aim and shot toward the goal.
    Then everything stood still. I was afraid to look up, until I heard the crowds chanting my name. “Sid-ney, Sid-ney, Sid-ney.” I couldn’t believe it. I had won our school its first ever championship title.

  • Great information. I use #3 to the point of obsession, not to mention being a habitual comma splicer, which I’m afraid makes my writing look kind of choppy. It’s amazing how much I critique my work now as one of your blog posts runs through my head!

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  • Strangely, I felt compelled to write about a sixth-grade spelling bee.

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  • I think to understand most commas (and avoid the most common misuses) you
    must first understand dependent and independent clauses.

    (There are a few exceptions, though like however and such, still learning these myself.)
    —-
    A dependent clause never sounds complete by itself:

    When I went to the store.

    If I were to help you.
    ——
    Dependent sentences require another sentence to be attached.

    When I went, I saw. Dependent, independent. Comma

    Dependent independent I saw when I went. No Comma

    —–
    Independent, and independent. OR independent; independent
    I stepped wrong, and I fell.
    I kicked the ball; it hit Nicolas.

    Other than that, introductory and list-based commas cover most comma mistakes. I may have to do more on this sometime.