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To Comma or Not to Comma

"I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again." -- Oscar Wilde

Commas have 5 Primary Uses: 

1. To separate items in a list

  • For example: Sarah enjoys singing, dancing, and acting. 

Remember, the comma before the conjunction is called the "Oxford" comma. Its usage is considered "optional," but you should be consistent with either using it or not using it. As it can actually affect the meaning of your sentence whether that comma is there or not, make sure that your meaning is absolutely and unmistakably clear!

2. To set off introductory material

For example: 

  • Last Friday, Sarah auditioned for a role in her school play.
  • Because of her interest in the dramatic arts, she believed she would get the lead.

Remember, this comma is needed only when the introductory material is at the beginning. If the order of words is reversed, the comma becomes unnecessary: Sarah auditioned for a role in her school play last Friday. 

3. To set off interrupting words: 

If a sentence is interrupted by non-essential information, a word or phrase that adds detail, but is not grammatically necessary for the sentence to be understood, that non-essential information needs to be set off with commas. 

For example: 

  • Her song choice, "Tonight" from West Side Story, showed off her vocal range perfectly. 

Without the interrupting phrase, the sentence still makes sense: Her song choice showed off her vocal range perfectly. 

Remember, commas should be used on both sides of the interrupting phrase. 

4. To separate independent clauses when used with a conjunction: 

When joining two complete sentences with one of the FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), a comma is needed before the conjunction For example: 

  • She started the song off very well, but she developed stage fright halfway through and forgot the words!

5. To set off a direct quotation: 

For example: 

  • She exclaimed, "Oh no!" 
  • "Next," called the director.

Other Uses

Direct Address: Sarah, there will be other plays. 

Salutations and closings of friendly letters: Dear Sarah, 

Numbers over 999:  1,000; 5,265

Between town and state/country: Wilmore, Kentucky; Frankfurt, Germany; St. Andrews, Scotland