Introducing the Comma

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Commas are a tricky little piece of punctuation, and they give many people headaches. In my students’ essays, I frequently see commas where they don’t belong, and I see necessary commas left out. I make it one of my goals to help demystify the comma for my students.

The most common missing comma is the one that comes after an introductory element in a sentence.

You need a comma after an introductory word:

Actually, I’ve never been to Disney World.

After an introductory phrase:

After the storm, many people were without electricity for days.

And after an introductory clause:

Because it was so hot outside, we decided to stay home.

Generally, it’s safe to use a comma in any of these cases. Be careful, though–sometimes what looks like an introductory phrase is actually the subject of the sentence:

Starting an essay without doing your research is never a good idea.

To be or not to be is the question. (apologies to Mr. Shakespeare)

If a sentence starts with a gerund (-ing) or infinitive (to+verb) phrase, using a comma is incorrect!

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14 thoughts on “Introducing the Comma”

  1. Be careful, though–sometimes what looks like an introductory phrase is actually…

    Captured one in the wild!

  2. I have been taught that you need a comma before the conjunction in lists, but people often argue that fact. Which is right?

    balls, bats, and gloves


    balls, bats and gloves

    PS – The Subscribe to Comments plugin would be very useful for readers

  3. The comma signals a pause in the flow of speech. Those who want to eliminate the comma before the last element of the series are ignoring this.

    If we have just bats and gloves, we say “bats ‘n gloves” with no pause between the words. Now, if we prepend balls to make a series, the rythm changes a bit. Instead of saying balls, bats ‘n gloves, we put a short pause after each item: balls, bats, ‘n gloves.

    Opinion seems to be split, but publishers are happy if we change the rules every 20 years or so.

  4. I am having a disagreement with a collaborator about commas in sentences containing lists. Do you need a comma after the next to last phrase or item in the list, before “and,” or do you leave it out? An example is: Justin likes to play video games, go to the movies, play touch football with his friends and put together model airplanes. Is there supposed to be a comma after the word “friends?”

  5. I’m trying to find what the rule is on using a comma after the word NOW at the beginning of a sentence. Is it always used, or only sometimes. I’m a transcriptionist and I get yelled at every day for my comma usage. Most sites I’ve read said there is no comma law, or anything written that is hard and fast as to the use of commas. I am curious about the Now, comma though. Thanks.

  6. Hmmm… About the last point, for this sentence, wouldn’t a comma be correct?

    “Frowning, he stepped forward quickly.”

  7. To Rachel’s comment:

    >Justin likes to play video games, go to the movies, play touch >football with his friends and put together model airplanes. Is there >supposed to be a comma after the word “friends?”

    For this example you DO need a comma after friends, otherwise it looks like Justin and his friends are playing football while putting together model airplanes. (No wonder Justing can’t catch!)

    Another example would be:

    “Justin likes to eat pizza, hamburgers, chili and ice cream.”

    Yuck! Chili and ice cream? Without the comma, chili and ice cream are not seen as separate items. To make the sentence clearer it should read:

    “Justin likes to eat pizza, hamburgers, chili, and ice cream.”

    This way Justin can enjoy chili and ice cream, but not necessarily in the same bowl.

    Hope that helps!

  8. Sorry about the > showing up in the middle of Rachel’s quote. In the comment box it showed on separate lines.

  9. Another sentence, “With the realization, came the panic, and his hands started fisting into the sheets.”

    The comma before ‘came’- is it correct?

  10. Take a look at this sentence: “Now what you need to do is get a grip, because if you can’t handle this arrangement, I’ll find someone else who can!”

    Should there be a comma after ‘Now’, and is the comma before ‘because’ correct?

  11. SZ, interesting question. I’d like to know, too. I rewrote it to break down the question.

    “The panic came with the realization. His hands started fisting into the sheets.”

    Flipping it around to “With the realization, the panic came.”

    But then instinct tells me not to put a comma and cut the verb off from the agent, which would be “With the realization”, but it’s not, is it? The subject+verb structure is obvious in “The panic came”.

    “With the realization came the panic.”

    But instinct says, hmm, not sure anymore. Unless you’re writing poetry.

    I’d go for the comma. Without it, realization looks like the subject of “came”, but it’s not.

  12. Beware about turning comma rules into a belief system. First, they can differ depending on the style sheet you have to use. For instance, if you are writing for a newspaper, magazine, or other publication where space is a concern, you will be required to use a lot fewer commas. Also, as Rick Monroe noted in 2007, the fashion in commas changes about every twenty years. So, learn your comma rules well now, and be prepared to be flexible–or surprised–in the future.

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