Last week I wrote Commas are Complicated and then received several requests for a printable version of some examples. In the spirit of summertime ease, I’m posting a somewhat abbreviated set of examples adapted from several sources. I list only the most common examples and do not address the exceptions.
A comma is a delicate kink in time, a pause within a sentence, a chance to catch your breath (Karen Elizabeth Gordon in The New Well-Tempered Sentence, p. 21).
However, not all of us catch our breaths at the same time, so inserting commas whenever you feel inclined to pause may not always be accurate. Paying attention to the italicized sentences in this section will help the comma guidelines stick!
Use the examples below to learn more.
ITEMS IN A SERIES
Three or more terms with a single conjunction require a comma after each term except the last.
—Bubbles of air, leaves, ferns, bits of wood, and insects are often found trapped in amber.
–He is walking up walls, crawling sideways, and turning somersaults as he approaches the queen.
–This comma is often referred to as the “serial” (or “Oxford”) comma.
–Although some writers view the comma between the last two items as optional, most experts advise using the comma because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.
–Uncle David willed me all of his property, houses, and warehouses.
–Uncle David willed me all of his property, houses and warehouses.
Without the second comma, confusion exists. Did Uncle David will his property and houses and warehouses – or simply his property, consisting of houses and warehouses? If the former meaning is intended, a comma is necessary to prevent ambiguity.
–In the names of business firms the last comma is usually omitted.
–Brown, Shipley and Co.
–Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated
LENGTHY INTRODUCTORY MATERIAL OR SHORT INTRODUCTORY MATERIAL OF SIGNIFICANCE
—However, Bertrand’s instincts concerning the treatment of angry teenagers had never failed him yet.
—After these severe rainstorms, we check to see if the river is rising to dangerous levels.
—As far as I’m concerned, no texting should take place at the dinner table.
—When Irwin was ready to iron, his cat tripped on the cord. .
—Near a small stream at the bottom of the canyon, the park rangers discovered an abandoned mine.
NONESSENTIAL INFORMATION AND/OR WORDS THAT INTERRUPT THE FLOW OF THOUGHT
–Raymond, who usually wears overalls, showed up in a formal black tuxedo.
–Her long red hair, which normally she kept tied back in a ribbon, blew wildly in the wind as she danced in the field.
–The final act of the play, which was surprisingly hilarious, left the audience in an upbeat mood.
–Those bookshelves, I must say, are an invitation to read poetry for a week.
NOTE: To figure out whether or not information is essential, remove the information from the sentence and observe the effect. Nonessential information can be lifted from a sentence without significantly changing its meaning.
NONESSENTIAL CLOSING MATERIAL
–We never arrived, which upset a bunch of excitable, aged aunts and uncles.
–I was exhausted, having paced the floor with our new baby three nights in a row.
–He left college heartbrokenly, not being able to afford the next year’s fees.
TWO OR MORE CLAUSES JOINED BY COORDINATING CONJUNCTIONS
— Clauses are complete sentences.
— The coordinating conjunctions are For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.
–The suspect removed his grimy white gloves, but another pair lurked beneath.
–The left-handed members of the board were banging their soup spoons, and the chairman left the podium in anger.
–I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t think I could do it again.
–He told her he disliked ice cream, yet he ate the entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
A PERSON SPOKEN TO IN DIRECT ADDRESS
–Forgive us, Dr. Atkins, for having rolls with dinner tonight.
–We’ll have more than rhetorical questions, young lady, when we get to your reasons for skipping school yesterday.
TWO OR MORE COORDINATE ADJECTIVES THAT MODIFY THE SAME NOUN IF AND CAN BE INSERTED BETWEEN THEM WITHOUT CHANGING THE MEANING
–She greeted her grandfather with open, outstretched arms
–Christina is a warm, gentle, affectionate mother.
–The cold, impersonal atmosphere of the university was unbearable.
Adjectives that do not modify the noun separately are cumulative. Cumulative adjectives are not separated by commas because they cannot be joined with and. They lean on one another, piggyback style, with each modifying a larger word group.
–Ira ordered a rich chocolate layer cake.
–My cat’s pupils had constricted to small black shining slits.
–In the corner of the closet we found an old maroon hatbox from Sears.
ELEMENTS WITHIN ADDRESSES
–Please send the package to Greg Tarvin, Vice President, Hall Industries, 708 Spring Street, Washington, IL 61571.
–I flew my horse from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, to Dublin, Ireland, for the Royal Dublin Horse Show.
DATES INCLUDING THE DAY OF THE MONTH NEXT TO THE YEAR
–I was born on March 17, 1947, in a small house on the prairie.
–She came to the palace on May 7, 1956, to take her place among her fellow ladies in waiting.
— “I’ve been wondering, Jasmine,” said Jimmy shyly, “if you’d care to go to the concert tonight.”
— As he usually did when entering a room of strangers, he thought fondly and desperately of his motto, “Be cool,” which never did him any good.
— Adapted from:
*Format for this entry is from Western Carolina University’s online writing resources.
Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The New Well-Tempered Sentence. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Hacker, Diana. Rules for Writers, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.
Strunk, William Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1999.