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How to use commas

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After the full stop, the humble comma is the most important punctuation tool, and for this reason it's very useful to be able to use them correctly. Many people worry about using commas, but it's really quite straightforward and by taking the time to learn a (very few) simple guidelines, you'll soon be able to use the comma like a professional writer (although professional writers do sometimes ignore the 'rules' of punctuation!).

When you use commas correctly, your readers won't notice they're there; however, they'll soon notice if you don't use commas, or if you use them in the wrong place.

So what does a comma do? Well, quite simply, a comma is an invitation to your readers to pause - to take a breath. You may not be confident about using commas in your writing, but you're using them all the time when you speak. A 'spoken comma' happens whenever you take a breath when talking, and they are used in the same way in writing. Why not take a look at something you've written, and try to read it aloud; without commas you won't know where to take a breath, and by the end of a sentence you'll be quite breathless.

Commas can be used to do five different things - this could be why they can cause confusion! On this page, we'll cover each of the five uses of the comma. The first comma use we'll look at is using commas to separate three or more items in a list; you're probably pretty confident about using commas in this way. These list items can be words, clauses or phrases. It's not usually necessary to put a comma before the and that separates the last item in the list, but you can add one if you like: it's a matter of taste! Take a look at the example below:

The most popular species of garden birds are wrens, robins, blackbirds, sparrows and thrushes.

Activity: Use commas to separate items in a list - 5 minutes

1. Decide where commas should be used to separate the items in the following sentences:

  • Many UK firms attempt to exploit the markets emerging in India China Russia and Africa.
  • Newcastle was once renowned for its heavy industries which included ship building mining steel aircraft manufacture and tank building.
  • Jack's favourite sports were football tennis golf and cricket.
  • To complete the activity you will need an ink pen some sheets of coloured card some strong glue a dozen paper clips and a pair of scissors.
  • I went shopping and bought a pair of red shoes a handbag seven oranges a teddy bear and a novel.
How did you do?

When you have finished this activity, you can check your answers here.

Commas can be used to separate adjectives (describing words) that describe the same noun (naming word). Here's an example:

My dog has soft, curly fur.

In this example, soft and curly are adjectives that describe the dog's fur. Only coordinate adjectives need commas between them. Coordinate adjectives modify the noun to the same extent. You can check whether the adjectives you are using are coordinate by seeing if you can reverse their order and place and between them. If you can then they are coordinate and need a comma, and if you can't they are not coordinate and don't need a comma. Confused? Looking at an example should help.

'My dog has soft, curly fur' could be reversed and written as 'My dog has curly, soft fur'.

You could also place 'and' between the adjectives: 'my dog has soft and curly fur'. Soft and curly both modify the noun fur to the same extent: these adjectives are coordinate and need a comma.

However, if you wrote I would love a cool strawberry ice-cream, it would not sound right written as I would love a strawberry cool ice cream. You couldn't place and between these adjectives either: I would love a cool and strawberry ice-cream, so these are not coordinate adjectives and don't need separating with a comma.

Activity: Using commas to separate adjectives - 5 minutes

1. Decide where commas should be be used to separate the coordinate adjectives in the sentences below. Beware! Not all the adjectives are coordinate. Remember, you only use commas to separate coordinate adjectives.

  • The critics praised the novel for its sparse beautiful prose.
  • The interim vote was perceived as a temporary emergency measure to restore confidence.
  • Sam has a red wool hat.
  • He chopped the wood with deliberate forceful strokes.
  • I live in a large white house
  • He is a small angry-looking man
How did you do?

When you have finished the above activity you can check your answers below.

Commas are also used when a sentence begins with an opening clause. I could rewrite that last sentence as...

Whenever a sentence begins with an opening clause, a comma can be used.

Note the use of the comma in that sentence? An opening clause is a clause that begins with words like because, as, since, when, whenever and though. An opening clause is a dependent clause that doesn't make sense on its own.

Activity: Using commas to separate opening clauses - 5 minutes

1. Decide where commas should be used to separate the opening clauses in the following sentences:

  • Since the 1990s the number of jobs in the service sector of the economy has grown.
  • As there is no consensus it is up to the individual to decide their own course of action.
  • When we work at night and sleep in the day we have trouble maintaining our appetite.
  • To visit his sick mother he drove hundreds of miles.
  • Because he lives in the city centre he doesn't need a car.
  • Though people are living longer quality of life is not necessarily improving.
How did you do?

When you have finished the above activity you can check your answers below.

Commas are also used before conjunctions (joining words) to join two independent clauses - clauses that make sense on their own. Conjunctions are words like...

For, an, nor, but, or, yet, so

Here's an example of a comma being used before a conjunction to separate two independent clauses:

The dog chased the cat, but the cat escaped.

The dog chased the cat is an independent clause; it can stand alone as a sentence. The cat escaped is also an independent clause. The conjunction but proceeded by a comma joins the two clauses together

Using a comma before conjunctions is a matter of personal preference: some do and some don't. But it's always a good idea to use a comma before the conjunction if a sentence is long.

Activity: Using commas before conjunctions - 5 minutes

1. Commas can be used before conjunctions (for, an, nor, but, or, yet) to join two independent clauses. Add commas before the conjunctions in the following sentences:

  • I could cook or we could order a takeaway.
  • Lizzie does not like flowers yet she loves trees.
  • I do not want him to come to the party but I will invite him if you insist.
  • Will you come straight home after dinner or will you go to the theatre first?
  • There's no passport office in Liverpool so we had to travel to Manchester.
  • The Prime Minister did not vote for the amendment but the rest of the cabinet did.
How did you do?

When you have finished the above activity you can check your answers below.

At last, we come to the final use of the comma: to separate dependent clauses or phrases in a sentence. A dependent clause or phrase does not make sense on its own, and it can be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning of that sentence. Take a look at the example below:

TB, once almost eradicated in the UK, is becoming increasingly common.

If we get rid of the clause once almost eradicated in the UK we are left with TB is becoming increasingly common. This can stand alone as a sentence without the dependent clause.

Activity: Using commas to separate dependent clauses or phrases - 5 minutes

1. Decide where commas should be used to separate the dependent clauses or phrases in these sentences:

  • Mr Brown the British Prime Minister apologised to the House.
  • A small snack on the other hand will prevent your blood sugar levels from falling.
  • In the UK for example many people consider a holiday abroad to be a basic necessity.
  • Daytime television although trivial and monotonous appeals to many demographics.
  • Lucy the youngest of the Smith children was an accomplished piano player.
How did you do?

When you have finished the above activity you can check your answers below.

Recommended Further Reading

Even if you're unsure how to use commas, it's vitally important to avoid the dreaded comma splice. This is probably one of the most common punctuation mistakes, and by avoiding it you'll improve your punctuation straight away.

A comma splice occurs when you try to join two independent clauses with a comma. There are a number of ways you can join independent clauses (see all the comma uses above), but using a comma is not one of them. Remember, a comma is not strong enough to join independent clauses; it's not up to the job. Look at this example:

Online auctions sites are becoming very popular, they are a great way of making money.

This sentence is made up of two independent clauses spliced together with a comma, and it's wrong. You could rewrite this sentence using a semicolon:

Online auctions sites are becoming very popular; they are a great way of making money.


You could slip in a subordinate conjunction. Note the addition of because in the sentence below. Subordinate conjunction is just a scary grammar term for words and phrases like as, when, because, while, than, that, even so, as long as, although.

Online auctions sites are becoming very popular because they are a great way of making money.

You could add a conjunction and a comma, as in this example:

Online auctions sites are becoming very popular, and they are a great way of making money.

Or you could simply divide it into two sentences:

Online auctions sites are becoming very popular. They are a great way of making money.

Whatever option you choose, there's no excuse for the comma splice. On the next page, we explore how to use the apostrophe.

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