English Language Blog

Common Comma Usage Posted by on Sep 14, 2012 in English Grammar


The last few days we have looked at rules related to capitalization along with some practice in this area.  Today I thought we would look at another aspect of English grammar, commas.  I will admit that the usage of commas in English is not my strong point, but I’ll do the best to explain this to you and also use commas correctly in my posts 🙂  There is a fair amount of variability in how people use commas in English, which just adds to the confusion.  Understanding and following the the following eleven rules about comma usage should be help for basic comma usage.

Comma usage rules:

1. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.
Please remember to bring shoes, socks, sandals, and boots.

 2. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.
He was merely ignorant, not stupid.
You’re his friends, aren’t you?

3. Use commas to set off all geographical names.
Birmingham, Alabama, gets its name from Birmingham, England.

4. Use commas to separate the different parts of a written date (except the month and day).
July 4, 1776, was an important day in American history.
When you write just the month and the year, no comma is necessary after the month or year.
July 1776 was an important month in American history.

5. Use commas to separate different parts of an addresses (except the street number and name).
Do you know who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC?

6. Use commas to separate titles that are parts of names.
James Smith, MD, is a well regarded doctor.

7. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse of a sentence and a quotation.
I said without thinking, “I’ll do it.”

8. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven words (called coordinating conjunctions): and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.
Yesterday was her birthday, so she took the day off.

9. Use commas after introductory
a) clauses (often beginning with: after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while),
b) phrases
and c) words that come before the main clause (often: yes, however, well).
If you are tired, you should go to bed.
While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.
Yes, the neighbors are moving out tomorrow.

10. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to off set clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before the clause, phrase or non essential items, and one at the end.  NOTE: Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence beginning with the word ‘that‘. That clauses after nouns are always essential.
This Saturday, which happens to be my birthday, is the day we have decided to move.
The book that I borrowed from you is not what I expected it to be.

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading. A comma acts as a pause between words to help clarify meaning.
Mrs. Bell, Harold had been very difficult to take care of today.

Tomorrow we will put these rules into practice with some practice exercises.

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About the Author: Gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.