How to use commas correctly

Oh, commas. They should be easy to use – after all, their purpose is to reflect how we speak – and yet everywhere I look they’re being horribly abused.

Sometimes they’re in places they have no business in; other times they’re missing.

Perhaps this is understandable. After all, many of us (myself included) were barely taught grammar and punctuation in school. Furthermore, it’s hard to find a simple, easy to read guide that avoids terms such as conjunctive adverbs and coordinating conjunctions.

So to do my part, this is how I wish my school teachers had explained the use of commas to me:

Commas add brief pauses to sentences – but you should only ever use one if the pause is necessary. If you can easily say a sentence out loud without pausing, there’s no need to add a comma.

The three most common reasons to use a comma are if you’re:

  1. saying more than one point within the one sentence – ie I like fat cats, and when I manage to get a large enough house I want to own at least 15 of them.
  2. adding a description (or as grammatical nerds call it, a modifier) – ie My apartment, which only has one bedroom, is too small to have 15 cats within it.
  3. writing a list in comma form – ie I like cats, dogs, rabbits and horses.

However, you should aim to only have one point per sentence (especially for business and online writing) and most lists should be in bullet point form.

That’s why I’m going to focus on the second reason – namely if you’re adding a description.

A simple rule is this: if you’re adding description to something within the middle of a sentence, you need two commas in just the same way you would use two parentheses – ie Dan’s cat, who has a luxuriant pelt of champagne-coloured hair, is a cruel taskmaster.

If you’re adding a description at the beginning or end of a sentence, however, then you only need the one comma – ie Despite being furry and soft to the touch, Dan’s cat was a cruel taskmaster.

And that’s it. Commas are that easy.

Well, ok – it can get trickier. For example, this sentence alone has a comma after for example. The reason is that for example is simply a description – or to use grammatical mumbo jumbo, it modifies what comes after it.

Another example of a modifier is however – which is why you always need a comma after it (and also before it if it’s in the middle of a sentence) – ie Cats are furry and look cute, however, they can also be cruel and vindictive.

If you have problems with using commas correctly, then try reading what you’ve written out loud (or at least in your head) to see if the commas (aka pauses) are in the right spot. In my experience, this sorts out most people’s problems.

As for quotations: remember to keep the comma within the quotation marks, so that instead of having:

“I love fat cats”, Dan said.

you’ll have:

“I love fat cats,” Dan said.

I’m sure many punctuation and grammar experts would shiver in horror at how I simplified the rules in this article – but this is all you need to know to avoid most problems.


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