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What is a Comma?


Comma usage is in some respects a question of personal writing style: some writers use commas liberally, while others prefer to use them sparingly. Most modern North American style guides now recommend using fewer commas rather than more, so when faced with the option of using a comma or not, you may find it wise to refrain.

For instance, the use of a comma before the "and" in a series is usually optional, and many writers choose to eliminate it, provided there is no danger of misreading:

We bought scarves, mittens and sweaters before leaving for Iceland. (comma unnecessary before "and")

We ate apples, plums, and strawberry and kiwi compote. (comma needed before "and" for clarity)

Comma Usage

1. Use a comma before a co-ordinating conjunction that joins independent clauses (unless the independent clauses are very short):

I wrapped the fresh fish in three layers of newspaper, but my van still smelled like trout for the next week. (commas with two independent clauses)
She invited him to her party and he accepted. (comma unnecessary with short clauses)

2. Use a comma after an introductory adverb clause and, often, after an introductory phrase (unless the phrase is very short):

After the hospital had completed its fund-raising campaign, an anonymous donor contributed an additional $10,000. (after introductory adverb clause)
From the east wall to the west, her cottage measures twenty feet. (after introductory prepositional phrase)
In the bottom drawer you will find some pink spandex tights. (no comma with short, closely related phrase)

3. Use a comma to separate items in a series:

Playing in a band can be exciting, but many people do not realize the hardships involved: constant rehearsals, playing until 2 a.m., handling drunken audience members, and transporting heavy equipment to and from gigs. (the comma preceding "and" is optional unless needed to prevent misreading)

4. Use commas to set off non-restrictive elements and other parenthetical elements. A non-restrictive modifier is a phrase or clause that does not restrict or limit the meaning of the word it is modifying. It is, in a sense, interrupting material that adds extra information to a sentence. Even though removing the non-restrictive element would result in some loss of meaning, the sentence would still make sense without it. You should usually set off non-restrictive elements with commas:

The people of Haiti, who for decades have lived with grinding poverty and mind-numbing violence, are unfamiliar with the workings of a true democracy.

A restrictive modifier is a phrase or clause that limits the meaning of what it modifies and is essential to the basic idea expressed in the sentence. You should not set off restrictive elements with commas:

Those residents of Ottawa who do not hold secure, well-paying jobs must resent the common portrayal of the city as a land of opportunity.

Note that you can use two other punctuation marks to set off non-restrictive elements or other parenthetical information: parentheses and dashes. Enclosing parenthetical information in parentheses reduces the importance of that information:

Mr. Grundy's driving record (with one small exception) was exemplary.

5. Placing parenthetical information between dashes has the opposite effect: it emphasises the material:

Mr. Grundy's driving record -- with one exception -- was exemplary.

Nevertheless, you should usually set off parenthetical information with commas.

Superfluous Commas

Equally important in understanding how to use commas effectively is knowing when not to use them. While this decision is sometimes a matter of personal taste, there are certain instances when you should definitely avoid a comma.

* Do not use a comma to separate the subject from its predicate:

WRONG Registering for our fitness programs before September 15, will save you thirty percent of the membership cost.
RIGHT Registering for our fitness programs before September 15 will save you thirty percent of the membership cost.

* Do not use a comma to separate a verb from its object or its subject complement, or a preposition from its object:

WRONG I hope to mail to you before Christmas, a current snapshot of my dog Benji.
WRONG She travelled around the world with, a small backpack, a bedroll, a pup tent and a camera.
RIGHT I hope to mail to you before Christmas a current snapshot of my dog Benji.
RIGHT She travelled around the world with a small backpack, a bedroll, a pup tent and a camera.

* Do not misuse a comma after a co-ordinating conjunction:

WRONG Sleet fell heavily on the tin roof but, the family was used to the noise and paid it no attention.
RIGHT Sleet fell heavily on the tin roof, but the family was used to the noise and paid it no attention.

* Do not use commas to set off words and short phrases (especially introductory ones) that are not parenthetical or that are very slightly so:

WRONG After dinner, we will play badminton.
RIGHT After dinner we will play badminton.

* Do not use commas to set off restrictive elements:

WRONG The fingers, on his left hand, are bigger than those on his right.
RIGHT The fingers on his left hand are bigger than those on his right.

* Do not use a comma before the first item or after the last item of a series:

WRONG The treasure chest contained, three wigs, some costume jewellery and five thousand dollars in Monopoly money.
WRONG You should practice your punches, kicks and foot sweeps, if you want to improve in the martial arts.
RIGHT The treasure chest contained three wigs, some costume jewellery and five thousand dollars in Monopoly money.
RIGHT You should practice your punches, kicks and foot sweeps if you want to improve in the martial arts.


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