from Traverse City and someone else whose name I failed to record asked about
the proper use of commas. Like it or not, some technical terms must be reckoned
with in order to place commas correctly, so let’s start with a quick review.
phrase is a group of words that does
not express a complete thought because the unit does not have its own subject
and its own verb:
in the beginning
- looking for a bench to sit on
- a woman on a mission
clause is a group of words that does
have its own subject and verb, but there are two kinds -- one that is complete
in itself (independent), and one that is limited (dependent) and must always be
attached to an independent clause, thus forming a longer and more complicated
An independent clause expresses a
complete thought; nothing prevents it from being called a sentence.
My dog’s name is Boo.
- My daughter is singing in a school musical
- Don’t forget to read Chapter 14 by Monday.
independent clauses may be joined into one by using coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, so, yet, for.
name is Boo, and my cat’s name is
- My daughter
is singing in a school musical tonight, so
I won’t be home until late.
- Don’t forget
to read Chapter 14 by Monday, or you
may fail the quiz.
A dependent clause does not express
a complete thought because it is bound by a subordinating conjunction. Examples of subordinating conjunctions
include because, while, although, as soon
as, wherever. They always begin the dependent clause.
Whenever I get a headache, I reach for the medicine cabinet.
- I’m limping because I sprained my ankle during a
- As soon as dinner is ready, I’ll let you know.
all that in mind, here are some comma rules that will serve you well.
When two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, use a
comma right in front of that conjunction.
· She wanted to take that class,
but her job interfered.
· Tom writes the words, and
Harriet writes the music.
· Handle that knife carefully, or
you will cut yourself.
Use a comma between words, phrases, and clauses in a series of three or more
items. This is called the series rule.
have lived in California, Iowa, Texas, and New Jersey
looked in the attic, in the basement, and in the garage.
made dinner, washed the dishes, put the baby to bed, did his homework, and then
watched the game on TV.
other words, when you have three or more items in your series, use one comma
less than the number of items.
When a dependent clause or a phrase or a transitional word begins a sentence,
use a comma right after it.
· If a worker is always on time,
his or her supervisor will notice.
· At the end of the movie, the
lights came on.
· However, he did not have enough
money to buy the leather chair.
Note: A transitional
word connects something that was said earlier with what is about to be
said. A few examples are furthermore, however, therefore, first,
next, finally, later, and meanwhile.
Use two commas to set apart an interrupting word or word group inside a
sentence. An interrupter is a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause that is
added to give extra information. Such information could be left out without
seriously changing the meaning of the main part of the sentence. Commas help
make it obvious that it is extra information.
· Your mother, furthermore,
is sympathetic. [transitional word]
· The pizza, if anyone cares,
has anchovies on it. [dependent clause]
· Her arm, not her leg, is
in a cast. [phrase]
· Our sixteenth president, Abraham
Lincoln, is well known. [proper noun]
· She studied Chapter 5, which
discusses computers. [dependent
· Thomas Edison, who invented
the light bulb, had a serious reading problem. [dependent clause]
you were to remove the underlined words in the preceding examples, the main
ideas would still be clear. The sentences would still give the reader an exact
identification of the topic under discussion. The underlined words give useful
information, but they are not necessary. This type of interrupter is called nonrestrictive, and it needs to be
enclosed by commas.
However, if a word or word group is needed to tell exactly which one, do not
enclose it in commas. Since the
information is necessary to identify a person, place, or thing, you don’t want
to minimize it or separate it. It is called restrictive.
· She studied the chapter that
· The person who invented the
light bulb had a serious reading problem.
· My sister who lives in
Seattle calls me more often than my sister who lives just a few miles
Leave the the underlined words out, and you have lost identification. Don’t make them appear extraneous by
enclosing them in commas.
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