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Commas

In modern English, the comma ( ) has a few conventional uses.

Uses of commas

Listing

Commas are used to separate items in a list. When there are only two items, there is no comma:

Hilda was back in a few moments wearing a long gray squirrel coat and a broad fur hat. [Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather]

When there are more than two items, use commas between each item:

… two cotton handkerchiefs, some brass trinkets, and a little tobacco. [The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin]

The last comma in a list, known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma, is controversial. Omitting the serial comma can lead to ambiguity:

He introduced his friends, Diana and Susan.

When we read this sentence out of context, there is no way to know whether it names Diana and Susan as the friends or lists Diana and Susan in addition to his friends.

But some style guides say the serial comma is superfluous where there’s no risk of ambiguity. Moreover, in the UK and Australia it’s common to find the serial comma regarded as an Americanism. It isn’t. In fact, it is also called the Oxford comma and non-American writers shouldn’t be afraid to use it for clarity.

Omitting the serial or Oxford comma is standard practice for many news organizations, including the New York Times, for example:

… artworks by Shirin Neshat, Alex Katz and Yoko Ono. [New York Times]

But some cases are not so clear cut:

On Christmas, the shelter lets guests sleep as late as they like, in beds that are warm, clean and safe. [New York Times]

The lack of comma in “clean and safe” leaves the sentence open to misreadings. What’s clean and safe—the bed or the guests?

Linking clauses

Commas link independent clauses in a compound sentence:

Andy Warhol was a big fan, and so was Roy Lichtenstein. [New York Times]

The metal trappings of the harnesses shone dazzlingly, and the wheels were revolving disks that threw off rays of light. [Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather]

Parenthetical content

Commas set apart parenthetical content within a sentence:


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Tracy Justice, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Health System Ann Arbor, confirmed that the hospital had received one patient from the flight. [LA Times]

Introductory phrases

A comma separates an introductory phrase from the main body of a sentence:

Between them, the two countries control 90 to 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. [Boston Globe]

Multiple adjectives

Commas separate multiple adjectives modifying a noun:

We went down to the old, smelly station.

Where substituting an and for the comma would sound wrong, no comma is necessary:

… the ailing former president.

Setting off quotes

A comma separates a quotation from its attribution:

“Sunday afternoon, then,” said Alexander, as she rose to join her hostess. [Alexander’s Bridge, Willa Cather]

However, there is no comma where the quotation fits into the syntax of the sentence:

President Barack Obama said Thursday that the country is close to the “end of a nearly century-long struggle to reform America’s health care system.” [CNN]

Greetings and closings

According to the conventional rules, a comma comes after a salutation and complimentary close in informal letters:

Dear Debbie,

Yours sincerely,

In formal letters, a colon is used.

Dates

A comma goes between the day and year in the date construction that looks like, “July 2, 1980.” No comma is used in the construction, “2 July 1980.” This comma-free form is popular in online publication, where the anti-comma bias is strong.

Addresses

Commas separate elements in addresses:

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Comments

  1. Chris Michael says:

    I would add that while a comma comes after “Dear Debbie,” in a salutation, it comes before the person’s name in a greeting: “Hi, Debbie.” Email has made introductions so commonplace that people have forgotten “Dear” is an adjective. Case and point: “Hello, dear Debbie.”

  2. Isn’t a comma or its absence also important in distinguishing defining and non-defining clauses?

    Consider the sentences:

    1) She enjoys the company of her regular visitors who come in the morning.
    2) She enjoys the company of her regular visitors, who come in the morning.

    For me, in (1) the phrase “who come in the morning” is defining; it specifies which of her regular visitors are being discussed. The sentence leaves open the possibility that she has regular visitors in the afternoon who bore her silly. In (2), it is non-defining. It doesn’t change the meaning of the earlier part of the sentence, “She enjoys the company of her regular visitors”; it simply adds the extra information that (all) her regular visitors come in the morning.

    In something like logical notation, (1) and (2) would mean

    1)’ For all x, ((RV(x) and M(x)) implies E(x))
    2)’ For all x (RV(x) implies E(x)) and for all x (RV(x) implies M(x)).

  3. Not really expecting this to even begin to address the grammatical errors which plague this country, here are the 16 ways the comma is used:
    1 INDEPENDENT (MAIN CLAUSES)
    2 INTRODUCTORY ELEMENTS
    3 ITEMS IN A SERIES
    4 COORDINATE ADJECTIVES
    5 PARENTHETICAL EXPRESSIONS
    6 ABSOLUTE PHRASES
    7 NAMES OR OTHER WORDS USED IN DIRECT ADDRESS
    8 AT THE BEGINNING OF A “Yes” OR “No” SENTENCE
    9 MILD INTERJECTIONS
    10 DIRECT QUOTATIONS
    11 EXAMPLES INTRODUCED BY “such as, especially, particularly”
    12 EXPRESSIONS OF CONTRAST
    13 IN PLACE OF OMITTED OR UNDERSTOOD WORDS
    14 IN LETTERS (friendly introduction and closing)
    15 IN DATES AND ADDRESSES
    16 TO GROUP WORDS TO PREVENT MISREADING
    *from English Simplified; Ellsworth and Higgins(Harper & Row, 1985)
    Sorry, I don’t have enough patience to list all the included examples, but I highly recommend this 32 page pamphlet to everyone. Mine has been with me since City College days.

  4. In answer to kgbgb’s question, yes, commas are used to separate a nonrestrictive clause so long as it is nonessential to the sentence.

  5. .lol people are funny here lol!!

  6. Sheree Fitzpatrick says:

    Any thoughts on when to use a comma before the word “because”?

  7. I do not understand how you can support the use of a comma before conjunctions such as ‘or’ or ‘and’. It NEVER used to be that way but the dumbing-down process is well underway and the epidemic of unnecessary commas is EVERYWHERE. The thinking seems to be, the poor little darlings will NEVER understand what I’m saying if they don’t get a frequent pit stop (with a comma) to reflect and gather their breath before moving on. E.g. On Thursday, my friend came to see me. Why the comma after ‘Thursday’? You wouldn’t dream of putting in a comma if you rearranged the sentence to read: ‘My friend came to see me on Thursday’. It’s awful. These ridiculous commas are everywhere… just everywhere. They need to go.

  8. What is the standard when using commas to write a number? In Australia, I see numbers up to 9,999 without a comma; for example, written as “2481”. For numbers of 10,000 and above, commas are used to separate the digits.

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