What this handout is about
In English, commas are used to separate parts of sentences. Use a comma to separate elements of a list, distinguish groups of words that go together, mark conjunctions between complete thoughts, and more. This handout offers seven easy steps to deciding when to use a comma.
Commas, commas, and more commas
Commas help your reader figure out which words go together in a sentence and which parts of your sentences are most important. Using commas incorrectly may confuse the reader, signal ignorance of writing rules, or indicate carelessness. Although using commas correctly may seem mysterious, it can be easy if you follow a few guidelines.
Beware of popular myths of comma usage:
- MYTH: Long sentences need a comma. A really long sentence may be perfectly correct without commas. The length of a sentence does not determine whether you need a comma.
- MYTH: You should add a comma wherever you pause. Where you pause or breathe in a sentence does not reliably indicate where a comma belongs. Different readers pause or breathe in different places.
- MYTH: Commas are so mysterious that it’s impossible to figure out where they belong! Some rules are flexible, but most of the time, commas belong in very predictable places. You can learn to identify many of those places using the tips in this handout.
You probably already know at least one of the following guidelines and just have to practice the others. These guidelines are basically all you need to know; if you learn them once, you’re set for most situations.
1. Introductory bits (small-medium-large)
Setting off introductory words, phrases, or clauses with a comma lets the reader know that the main subject and main verb of the sentence come later. There are basically three kinds of introductory bits: small, medium, and large ones. No matter what size they are, an introductory bit cannot stand alone as a complete thought. It simply introduces the main subject and verb.
There are small (just one word) introductory bits:
Generally, extraterrestrials are friendly and helpful.
Moreover, some will knit booties for you if you ask nicely.
There are medium introductory bits. Often these are two- to four-word prepositional phrases or brief -ing and -ed phrases:
In fact, Godzilla is just a misunderstood teen lizard of giant proportions.
Throughout his early life, he felt a strong affinity with a playful dolphin named Flipper.
Frankly speaking, Godzilla wanted to play the same kinds of roles that Flipper was given.
Dissatisfied with destruction, he was hoping to frolick in the waves with his Hollywood friends.
There are large introductory bits (more than 4 words). You can often spot these by looking for key words/groups such as although, if, as, in order to, and when:
If you discover that you feel nauseated, then you know you’ve tried my Clam Surprise.
As far as I am concerned, it is the best dish for dispatching unwanted guests.
FANBOYS is a handy mnemonic device for remembering the coordinating conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. These words function as connectors. They can connect words, phrases, and clauses, like this:
Words: I am almost dressed and ready.
Phrases: My socks are in the living room or under my bed.
Clauses: They smell really bad, so they will be easy to find.
Notice the comma in the final example. You should always have a comma before FANBOYS that join two independent clauses (two subjects and two verbs that make up two complete thoughts). Look carefully at the next two sentences to see two independent clauses separated by comma + FANBOYS.
If you do not have two subjects and two verbs separated by the FANBOYS, you do not need to insert the comma before the FANBOYS. In other words, if the second grouping of words isn’t a complete thought, don’t use a comma. Try reading the words after FANBOYS all by themselves. Do they make a complete thought?
You can read your own writing in the same way. Read what comes after FANBOYS all by itself. If it’s a complete thought, you need a comma. If not, you don’t.
3. The dreaded comma splice
If you don’t have FANBOYS between the two complete and separate thoughts, using a comma alone causes a “comma splice” or “fused sentence” (some instructors may call it a run-on). Some readers (especially professors) will think of this as a serious error.
BAD: My hamster loved to play, I gave him a hula-hoop.
ALSO BAD: You wore a lovely hat, it was your only defense.
To fix these comma splices, you can do one of four simple things: just add FANBOYS, change the comma to a semicolon, make each clause a separate sentence, or add a subordinator (a word like because, while, although, if, when, since, etc.)
GOOD: You wore a lovely hat, for it was your only defense.
ALSO GOOD: You wore a lovely hat; it was your only defense.
STILL GOOD: You wore a lovely hat. It was your only defense.
TOTALLY GOOD: You wore a lovely hat because it was your only defense.
4. FANBOYS fakers
However, therefore, moreover, and other words like them are not FANBOYS (they are called conjunctive adverbs). They go between two complete thoughts, just like FANBOYS, but they take different punctuation. Why? Who cares? You just need to recognize that they are not FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so—remember?), and you’ll make the right choice.
When you want to use one of these words, you have two good choices. Check to see if you have a complete thought on both sides of the “conjunctive adverb.” If you do, then you can use a period to make two sentences, or you can use a semicolon after the first complete thought. Either way, you’ll use a comma after the faker in the second complete thought. Notice the subtle differences in punctuation here:
GOOD: Basketball is my favorite sport. However, table tennis is where I excel.
ALSO GOOD: Basketball is my favorite sport; however, table tennis is where I excel.
BAD: Basketball is my favorite sport, however table tennis is where I excel.
ALSO BAD: Basketball is my favorite sport, however, table tennis is where I excel.
5. X,Y, and Z
Put commas between items in a list. When giving a short and simple list of things in a sentence, the last comma (right before the conjunction–usually and or or) is optional, but it is never wrong. If the items in the list are longer and more complicated, you should always place a final comma before the conjunction.
EITHER: You can buy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in Los Angeles.
OR:You can buy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in Los Angeles.
BUT ALWAYS: A good student listens to his teachers without yawning, reads once in a while, and writes papers before they are due.
If you have two or more adjectives (words that describe) that are not joined by a conjunction (usually and) and both/all adjectives modify the same word, put a comma between them.
He was a bashful, dopey, sleepy dwarf.
The frothy, radiant princess kissed the putrid, vile frog.
Two commas can be used to set off additional information that appears within the sentence but is separate from the primary subject and verb of the sentence. Sometimes called a “parenthetical expression” or an “aside,” this information interrupts the main thought to add an additional comment. Occasionally, the interrupter won’t actually interrupt the main thought. It may be added at the end. In that case, it’s preceded by a comma and followed by a period.
Bob Mills, a sophomore from Raleigh, was the only North Carolina native at the Japanese food festival in Cary.
Aaron thought he could see the future, not the past, in the wrinkles on his skin.
My chemistry book, which weighs about 100 pounds, has some really great examples.
The organization is committed to protecting wildlife, especially pandas.
To see if you need commas around an interrupter, try taking the interrupter out of the sentence completely. If the sentence is still clear without the interrupter, then you probably need the commas.
Congratulations! You know how to use commas!
But wait—is there more?
These guidelines cover the most common situations in writing, but you may have a stickier question. Below are some suggestions for finding some of the many other resources at your disposal.
If you are worried about punctuation in general, pick up a writing handbook from the library or the University bookstore. You’ll find a list of handy resources below.
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
Gordon, Karen. 1993. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. New York: Pantheon Books.
Gordon, Karen. 1993. The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. 2016. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects, 8th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.
Kolln, Martha, Loretta Gray, and Joseph Salvatore. 2016. Understanding English Grammar, 10th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.
O’Conner, Patricia. 2010. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.
Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook, 5th ed. New York: Longman.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Make a Gift
Where should a comma be placed in this sentence? ›
Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. Example: I love vanilla ice cream, but my brother prefers chocolate. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.Do I need a comma in this sentence? ›
Use a comma when the first word of the sentence is freestanding “yes” or “no.” Use a comma when directly addressing someone or something in a sentence. Use a comma between two adjectives that modify the same noun. Use a comma to offset negation in a sentence.Where is the writing center unc? ›
The Writing Center's main location is in the Student and Academic Services Building North (SASB), located at the intersection of Manning Drive and Ridge Road on the south end of the UNC campus.Where should a comma be placed in this sentence quizlet? ›
Use commas after all introductory adverb clauses. Use commas to set off internal adverb clauses that interrupt the flow of a sentence. In general, set off an adverb clause at the end of a sentence only if the clause is parenthetical or the sentence would be misread without the comma.How do you use commas correctly examples? ›
Compound Sentences Use a comma to separate the independent clauses in a compound sentence: Example: The snow started to fall heavily, so all the schools and universities closed early. The comma is optional if both independent clauses are short and the meaning is clear.Where not to put a comma? ›
- Do not use a comma between the subject and verb of a sentence. ...
- Do not use a comma when the subject has two verbs. ...
- Use a comma at the end of a date. ...
- Use a comma after place names using states or counties. ...
- Use a comma before “and” when listing a series.
Semicolons connect main clauses, i.e. groups of words with a subject and verb that could function as a complete sentence on their own. If you were to use a comma to link main clauses, it would be a comma splice. Think of commas as being too weak to hold main clauses together without the help of a conjunction.Do you put a comma after a place? ›
Unless a place name is at the end of a sentence and followed by sentence-ending punctuation, whenever you list a city and a state or a city and a country, place commas around the state or the country. The rule applies even when the country or state name is abbreviated.Which or that comma rule? ›
“That” Versus “Which”:
Traditional grammar dictates that you use “that” when the phrase is restrictive and “which” when the phrase is nonrestrictive. In that case, you would always have the comma before “which” and never have the comma before “that.”
The Writer's Center is on the second floor of the LRC in room 225.
Does UNC have a good writing program? ›
The undergraduate creative writing program at UNC–Chapel Hill is — and has long been — one of the best in the country.Does NC State have a Writing Center? ›
Any actively enrolled NC State student can use the ASC writing services. We do ask that students schedule in the appropriate undergraduate or graduate writing support center.Where do commas go in a written address? ›
In an address, place a comma after the street and between the city and state: 1714 North Harvey Street, Griffith, IN 46300. Do not place a comma between the state and the ZIP code.Where does the comma go in a coordinating conjunction? ›
How to punctuate coordinating conjunctions. When a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses, a comma is used before the coordinating conjunction (unless the two independent clauses are very short). Conjunctions that are not followed by non-essential elements should never be followed by commas.When a comma is used with such as the comma should be placed? ›
The phrase such as requires a comma in front of it only if it's part of a nonrestrictive clause.What are the 8 rules for commas? ›
- Use a comma to separate independent clauses. ...
- Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. ...
- Use a comma between all items in a series. ...
- Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses. ...
- Use a comma to set off appositives. ...
- Use a comma to indicate direct address. ...
- Use commas to set off direct quotations.
There are four types of comma: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas.What is the 3 comma rule? ›
COMMA RULE #3 – THE COMMA IN A COMPOUND SENTENCE: Use a comma before and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet to join two independent clauses that form a compound sentence. What is a compound sentence? A compound sentence is a sentence that has 2 independent clauses.What does comma avoid? ›
Commas can be used to avoid confusion when writing, for example, by making the subject and object of a verb clear; identifying who is being named, or who is delivering reported speech; or avoiding potential misunderstanding.Do commas still matter in writing? ›
Commas help your reader figure out which words go together in a sentence and which parts of your sentences are most important. Using commas incorrectly may confuse the reader, signal ignorance of writing rules, or indicate carelessness.
Which sentences use a semicolon correctly? ›
Rule to Remember
Use a semicolon between related sentences when the second sentence starts with either a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression. Correct: Although Nate is a kind employee, that new guy is not.
The semi-colon is often used to join together two independent clauses — in other words, it joins two clauses that could be sentences. For example: Mary drives a Mercedes; Joanne drives a Chevrolet. These two clauses could be separate sentences: "Mary drives a Mercedes.
■Semicolons in Compound Sentences
We could go fishing on Saturday. You could borrow a pole from my neighbor. We could go fishing on Saturday; you could borrow a pole from my neighbor. Using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses creates what's called a compound sentence.
When a city and state appear together at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence, a comma must follow both the city and the state. Dallas, Texas, is my home. 2. When the name of the state is the last word in a sentence, it is NOT followed by a comma.Where do you put the comma before and after? ›
In English, you must put a comma before “and” when it connects two independent clauses. A clause is independent when it could stand on its own as a sentence—it has its own subject and verb. Example: Comma before “and” connecting two independent clauses Jagmeet walks to school, and Rebecca takes the bus.Do you put a comma between address and city? ›
Use commas with places, cities, and addresses:
My parents moved to Miami, Florida. Do you live at 115 North Street, Chesapeake, VA 23321? (There is no comma before zip code; also, there is no comma after zip code UNLESS the address appears in the middle of the sentence.)
You need a comma before “which” when it introduces a nonrestrictive clause: a clause providing extra information that isn't essential to the sentence's meaning. There's no comma before “which“ when it introduces a restrictive clause: a clause that couldn't be removed without changing the sentence's meaning.Do you need a comma before a relative clause at the end of a sentence? ›
The relative pronouns are: who, whom, whose, which, and that. Relative pronouns introduce subordinate clauses functioning as adjectives. Use commas to set off nonrestrictive subordinate clauses, and do not use commas to set off restrictive clauses.Do all relative clauses need commas? ›
Remember: if the relative clause is essential, no commas are needed. If the relative clause is providing the reader with some additional information, commas are used. a. My brother who lives in Sydney came to see me last month.Where is the Writing Center at UVA? ›
Our main location is 314 Bryan Hall; we also offer services at Clemons 2nd Floor and the JPJ Academic Center.
Where is the Writing Center vcu? ›
If you are unable to plan for an appointment ahead of time, you are welcome to stop by the Writing Center at room 4203 on the 4th floor of 1000 Floyd Avenue to attempt to signup for a drop-in appointment.Where is the Writing Center at UNL? ›
Our main location is 102 Andrews Hall.What program is UNC-Chapel Hill known for? ›
A leader in education and research, UNC-Chapel Hill is composed of our College of Arts & Sciences, five major health affairs schools (Medicine, Public Health, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Nursing), and numerous professional schools (Law, Education, Journalism and Media, Social Work, Government and Business).What is UNC known for academically? ›
The most popular majors at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill include: Social Sciences; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs; Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies; Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services; Business, Management, Marketing, and Related ...Is it hard to get a good GPA at UNC? ›
The average GPA at UNC is 4.39. This makes UNC Extremely Competitive for GPAs. (Most schools use a weighted GPA out of 4.0, though some report an unweighted GPA.Do NC schools teach cursive? ›
In 2013 the state General Assembly passed the Back to Basics law, requiring that students learn cursive and times tables.How many essays do you have to write for NC State? ›
NC State has five essay prompts this year. The first three every student will encounter, and include a “Why This Major?” essay, “Overcoming Challenges” essay, and a “Diversity” essay.Is NC Central a private school? ›
For more than a century, NC Central has prepared students to transform communities. We made the commitment as the nation's first public liberal arts institution for African American students. We sustain it as a future-focused modern university.Is it grammatically correct to put a comma before and? ›
In English, you must put a comma before “and” when it connects two independent clauses. A clause is independent when it could stand on its own as a sentence—it has its own subject and verb. Example: Comma before “and” connecting two independent clauses Jagmeet walks to school, and Rebecca takes the bus.Do you put a comma after listing 3 things? ›
As mentioned above, when you are listing three or more items, commas should separate each element of the list. However, the final comma—the one that comes before the and—is optional. This comma is called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. Whether or not you use the serial comma is a style choice.
Do you put a comma before or in a list? ›
When making a list, commas are the most common way to separate one list item from the next. The final two items in the list are usually separated by "and" or "or", which should be preceeded by a comma. Amongst editors this final comma in a list is known as the "Oxford Comma".Where do you put the comma after and? ›
Do You Put a Comma After "And"? If you use a comma with "and," it should always precede the word "and." You should never put a comma after the word "and." This rule applies to both independent clauses joined by "and" and lists of three or more items, as well as any other time "and" might appear in a sentence.What is the rule for and commas? ›
The word and is a conjunction, and when a conjunction joins two independent clauses, you should use a comma with it. The proper place for the comma is before the conjunction.What is an example of a comma before or? ›
You need a comma before “or” when it connects two independent clauses. These are clauses that could stand alone as full sentences because each contains its own subject and verb. Example: Comma before “or” connecting two independent clauses Joso and I might go to the museum, or we might go to a café.What is the three word comma rule? ›
Use a comma after phrases of more than three words that begin a sentence. If the phrase has fewer than three words, the comma is optional.What is an example of a sentence with commas in a series? ›
Use commas to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more items. Example: My estate goes to my husband, son, daughter-in-law, and nephew. Note: When the last comma in a series comes before and or or (after daughter-in-law in the above example), it is known as the Oxford comma.Is Oxford comma correct? ›
Are Oxford commas grammatically correct? Contrary to what most students believe, the Oxford comma isn't grammatically correct. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to use it. Instead, it's grammatically optional.Is a comma used after every noun in a list? ›
When you have a list of nouns in a sentence, you should put a comma after each noun except the last one, and sometimes the second to last one, with a space after each comma but not before.What are examples of list comma? ›
This comma is known as a listing comma, e.g. I like rice, beans, and plantains. Listing commas can usually be replaced by "and" or "or," e.g. I like rice and beans and plantains. Listing commas can separate lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, dependent clauses, or even complete sentences.What is comma rule 5 example? ›
5. Use a comma before a quotation when an introductory phrase with a word like say or reply precedes the quotation. Wilbur says, “It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer” (White 184).
What is rule 5 of comma rules? ›
COMMA RULE #5 – THE COMMA WITH NONESSENTIAL WORDS, PHRASES, AND CLAUSES: Separate with a comma any nonessential words or groups of words from the rest of the sentence. 1. Separate “interrupter” words like however, nevertheless, yes, no, of course, from the rest of the sentence.