The Confounding Comma

A Guide to Its Correct Use

Does this small quarter-moon shape confound you? If so, read on.

The comma has many important functions and confounding gentle writers is not one of them! Instead, the comma prevents misreading; introduces elements; separates coordinate elements; sets off direct addresses and contrasted elements; and, among other things, separates dates, addresses, and titles. So read these simple rules and apply them in your writing, and then this small half-moon shape known as the comma will no longer confound you.

Proper Use Of The Comma

  1. Use a comma BEFORE a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) to join independent clauses:
    • I love ice cream, and I eat it every day.
    • The movie captured a moment in history, yet it failed to move the audience.
  2. Use a comma to SEPARATE an introductory phrase or clause from the main part of the sentence:
    • After Jose finished his meal, he took a siesta.
    • Dancing wildly in the moonlight, Charlotte discovered a new side of herself.
  3. Use a comma BETWEEN all items in a series:
    • My sister gave me her books, her old clothes, and her jewelry.
    • “The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies, and midnight orgies” (Hacker 246).
  4. Use a comma BETWEEN coordinate adjectives that are not joined by and.
    • The wily, weird, troublesome fellow continued following me.
    • After I got home, I noticed the warm, cozy, hand-woven comforter.
  5. Use commas to SET OFF nonessential elements. These are words or phrases that are not necessary to the meaning of the sentence or that are parenthetical. The following examples are taken from A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker:
    • nonessential clause: “Ed's country house, which is located on thirteen acres, was completely furnished with bats in the rafters and mice in the kitchen” (240).
    • nonessential phrase: “The helicopter, with its 100,000-candlepower spotlight illuminating the area, circled above” (241).
    • nonessential appositive: “Darwin's most important book, On the Origin of Species, was the result of many years of research” (241).
  6. Use commas to SET OFF direct addresses & quotations:
    • “O, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo?”
    • Will this work be sufficient to receive an “A,” professor?
    • Professor Strunk intones, “Omit needless words!”
    • Karl Marx proclaims, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”
  7. Use commas to SET OFF contrasted elements:
    • Unlike Sven, Anthony could recite the entire Declaration of Independence.
    • Many entrepreneurs seek financial, not spiritual, satisfaction.
  8. Use commas to SET OFF dates, addresses, and titles:
    • On January 15, 1925, Theresa Hegarty was born. We visited Austin, Texas, last year. Hermione Smythely, M.D., is a well-known pediatrician.

Improper Use of the Comma

Do Not Use Commas in the Following Instances:

  • AFTER a coordinating conjunction: I like ice cream, but, I try to avoid it.
  • AFTER such as or like: Many colors, such as, puce, are unfamiliar ones.
  • BEFORE than: Hot chocolate is more enticing, than coffee.
  • AFTER although: Although, the children were excited, they managed to calm down.
  • BEFORE a parenthesis: She began as an intern, (with a closet as her office) but ended up as president of the company.
  • WITH a question mark or an exclamation point: “What's more important?,” he asked.

By Teresa Sweeney, Writing Coach, December 2004