The DumbLittleMan Guide to Comma Use

By StevenAitchison

October 23, 2009   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

If all the punctuation marks got together for a party, the party wouldn’t come alive until the comma arrived. The comma is such a versatile little animal. Often abused, under-used and over-used, the comma can be a readers best friend, but a writer’s worst enemy.

Whilst the full stop is the red light to a sentence, the comma has the ability to keep the green light on a sentence for a long time. With its versatility it can keep complex sentences coherent, it can add additional information, add afterthoughts, and enlarge upon thoughts.

I bet you didn’t think a little curl of a pen mark could evoke such passion.

I have been fascinated with the comma ever since an English teacher told me, ‘The best way to use a comma is to think of it as a way of pausing before moving on to the next part of the sentence.’, whilst this is a myth it is a good way to get started thinking about commas. However, there are so many other ways it can be used.

9 ways to use the comma

  1. To glue two sentences together
    When two complete sentences (independent clauses) are joined by a conjunction such as the words; and, but, or for.


The post about commas seemed like an unusual topic, but it managed to bring in over 100 comments.

You will see that the sentence above could quite easily be split into two sentences with the use of a full stop to read:

The post about commas seemed like an unusual topic. It managed to bring in over 100 comments. 

  • To give additional information
    Commas are great in allowing us to give additional information in a sentence. The additional information is called an appositive phrase, which is a noun or a phrase placed next to a word to provide identification or give additional information. 


Jay White, the owner of this blog, is seen as an authoritative figure in the world of blogging.

You will see that, ‘the owner of this blog’, is not really necessary, but it does provide additional information, which could be useful.

  • Writing a series of three or more words or phrases 


He was tall, dark, and handsome.

He opened the email, read it, and decided to publish the article he had been sent.

Note that you do not need to use the last comma in each of the sentences above. However, this is a matter of personal preference. Whichever way you choose, use it as consistently as possible.

  • Non restrictive phrases
    Non restrictive phrases give additional information to a reader, but it is not essential to the sentence to be understood. 


My son, who is an artist, enjoys listening to trance music.

You’ll see from the above sentence that if we were to take out ‘who is an artist’ the sentence would still hold. It is a non essential piece of information.

However, if I had two or more sons, the non restrictive phrase ‘who is an artist’ would become essential for identification and therefore the commas would be left out because the phrase becomes essential to identify which of my two sons I was speaking about.

  • Demanding a pause
    This is what first got me interested in commas. I was told that if you feel you need to pause during a sentence, then insert a comma. Whilst not strictly true, we can still use it like a pause 


Wherever you go in the world, travel light.

It is important to note that all commas need a pause, but not all pauses need a comma.

  • Setting off direct quotations
    When you are presenting quoted speech in a piece of work, you will need to insert a comma before the beginning quotation mark. 


Oscar Wilde said, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”

Commas are also used if the speech is broken within a sentence.


“A true Blogger”, said Steve, “is one who blogs!” 

  • After conjunctive adverbs
    Conjunctive adverbs are adverbs that act as a transition between complete ideas, remember that adverbs tweak the meaning of verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. 


“Nothing can be unconditional; consequently, nothing can be free.”
(George Bernard Shaw)

Using the example above you might notice that a semicolon has been introduced. This is usually the case when a conjunctive adverb is used between two clauses.

You may also notice that the comma can be omitted when conjunctive adverbs are used. This, again, is a personal preference.

Here are some example of conjunctive adverbs:

accordingly, also, besides, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, nonetheless, otherwise, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, and thus.

  • Set off a direct address
    Use a comma to separate the name of someone who is being addressed from the message. 


Brian, you are my favorite copywriter. 

  • Parenthetical phrases
    This simply means using commas instead of using parenthesis, which are phrases in brackets. 


Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibres – Victor Hugo

You see from the example above it could just as easily read like:

Great blunders are often made (like large ropes) of a multitude of fibres.

When not to use commas
We have looked at places where commas should be used. However, commas will always be used in the wrong places too, so here are a few places where commas should not be used.

  • Do not use a comma between two independent clauses, such as;

Writing great headlines is one way to catch the readers attention, advertising is one way to monetize your blog.

When we say independent clause we really mean sentences that have no real link to each other. However, we can link two independent clauses with a conjunctive word ( and, but, or, nor, for, etc.) So the sentence above would read:

Writing great headlines is one way to catch the readers attention, and advertising is one way to monetize your blog. 

  • Do not use commas to separate a noun and its modifying adjectives when the adjectives come before the noun. 

The shiny black, car was a Ford. (shiny black (adjectives) and car (noun))

Just look at the sentence above we know, instinctively, that it is wrong and it should be:

The shiny black car was a Ford. 

  • Do not separate subject and verb by a comma 

The readers of this blog, leave a lot of comments.

The comma between ‘readers’ (subject) and ‘leave’ (verb) should have no comma and should read like:

The readers of this blog leave a lot of comments.

Commas can be complex sometimes, but using the examples above should keep you on the right track to knowing when and where to use commas.

If you find any comma mistakes in this article, they were obviously put there to test you, so please tell us when you find them.

Written on 10/23/2009 by Steven Aitchison. Steven is the Author of Change Your Thoughts and works as an alcohol and drugs counselor. He has a BSc in Psychology and has a passion for studying belief formation, thought processes and values and principles. His blog focuses on personal development through changing your thoughts but covers the whole personal development field. Photo Credit: Don Fulano

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