“Put a comma in whenever you take a breath”
If that’s the comma rule you have been following, maybe it’s time you stop and revise your grammar again. Such a rule made sense in ancient times when texts were mostly read and spoken out loud. However, today there are specific grammar rules which should be followed to make the meaning and rhythm of your spoken and written sentences clear.
When there is a misunderstanding regarding the meaning of a text, the results can be disastrous, as was observed in the case of a dairy company from Maine. In this landmark case, a lawsuit filed by its drivers cost the company $5 million, as they forgot to add a comma in one sentence in their overtime policies.
Therefore, below is a list of ten essential comma rules which will not just make your communication clear, but in the rarest of the cases, might save you millions of dollars.
Rule 1: Comma Before FANBOYS
Here, FANBOYS stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So, which also represent ‘Coordinating Conjunctions’.
When two independent clauses/sentences are linked by a FANBOYS/ coordinating conjunction, place a comma before the conjunction.
In the above example, the coordinating conjunction being used is ‘but.’
Now, look at the sentences that come before and after ‘but.’
- Is “Our exams finished a month back” a complete sentence/clause? Yes
- Is “We didn’t receive our results till now” a complete and independent sentence? Yes
Two complete and independent sentences are being linked using a FANBOYS conjunction; thus, it’s important to place a comma before “but.”
A few more examples are given below:
NOTE: If the sentence that succeeds the FANBOYS conjunction does not make sense as a stand-alone sentence (means it is not an independent clause), then, there is no need for a comma.
NOTE: Exclude the comma, if the two independent sentences linked by the coordinating conjunction are very short.
Acceptable: Roses are red and the sky is blue.
Rule 2: Comma after Dependent Clauses
When a sentence begins with a dependent clause, use a comma to separate it from the independent clause (the rest of the sentence).
The words ordered alphabetically in the table below (subordinating conjunctions) commonly indicate a dependent clause:
When subordinating conjunctions are present in the middle of a sentence, there is usually no need of a comma.
When a subordinating conjunction is present in the beginning of a sentence, there is a natural pause at the point between the end of the dependent clause and the start of the independent clause.
Read out loud the below-mentioned sentence and listen if a natural pause comes where the dependent clause ends and the independent clause starts.
Example: If you do your homework, I will bake you a cake.
At the point where a pause comes at the end of the dependent clause and the start of the independent clause, a comma should be placed.
Now, it’s time that you experiment with your own sentences using the subordinating conjunctions present in the table above. Check if a pause comes between the clause as you write and speak the sentences aloud.
Rule 3: After an Introductory Word or Phrase
A comma should be placed after a word/ expression that introduces a sentence. Such words generally point towards a transition or offer a commentary on the sentence which follows it.
Below are some commonly used introductory words:
- Also, don’t leave without carrying an umbrella.
- Finally, he reached the class.
- For example, the students who were taught using interactive software showed better retention.
- First, read the whole chapter to understand the context.
- Second, go through the question & answers.
- Next, try to solve the in-text questions yourself.
- In contrast, the students in section B were performing much better.
- In the meantime, I was able to reach the bus stop and catch the bus.
- In the end, having no company is many times better than having a bad company.
- However, there were worse subjects in the semester.
- Luckily, it won’t rain again today.
- Of course, not everyone can play a guitar like a pro.
- Unfortunately, there is no water in the tank.
While using the above words, only a comma is required when they act as introductory phrases.
Sometimes, when they act as a central part of a sentence; they do not require a comma.
Therefore, it is important for you to understand and check whether such words are functioning as the introductory word or as the central part of your sentence.
Check out these examples:
- Of course you are the best. (Does not function as an introductory expression)
- Of course, taking PE class is not mandatory. (Functions as an introductory expression)
- Next in line to be appointed as our Vice-President would be Mr. Joseph. (Does not function as an introductory word)
- Next, press Ctrl+C and copy the entire text to another doc file. (Functions as an introductory word)
Rule 3a: Make sure to insert a comma after that phrase that either introduces or directs to the main section of the sentence. This rule applies in a similar way as the dependent clause rule functions.
- Dancing in the rain, the kids drew quite a crowd.
- Of all the musicians playing in the band, he was my favorite.
- Wanting to reach on time on my first day, I took a cab to the office.
- With that in mind, he explained the next paragraph.
Rule 4: Before Follow-up Elements
Insert a comma before that word or phrase which is present at the end of a sentence and functions as an afterthought. In certain cases, these afterthoughts can also be short follow-up questions.
- I love dancing in the rain, don’t you?
- You were going to come yesterday, I believe.
- The street was crowded, almost too crowded.
Rule 5: Between Items in a Series
A comma should be used for separating three or more items present in a series. These items can either be single words or complete phrases.
- All of us traveled to Germany, France, and Italy on our European tour.
- Tomorrow, I need to attend the class, talk to ma’am, and convince her to grant me leave.
NOTE: One of the most common mistakes is placing the comma prior to the first item in the series. You should always remember to insert the comma after the first item.
NOTE: Many writers and grammar guides choose to insert a comma after the second-to-last item, while, there many others choose to omit it. We will be putting such a comma in our exercises.
NOTE: When a list is complex, using only commas can confuse readers. In such cases, use a semicolon between the pair of words which function as a single unit but are mostly misinterpreted as separate items. Check out the example below.
Rule 6: Nonessential Interrupting Phrases and Words
Commas should be placed around words and phrases which meet the following two conditions:
1. The word/phrase serves a non-essential, additional role and is not needed for making sense of the sentence.
2. The word/phrase interrupts the sentence flow.
- He, however, cannot be allowed to leave the college premises.
- This is the last time, I believe, we would have to study Chemistry.
- You understand, of course, that doing double masters is tough.
- The Petronas Towers, one of the tallest monuments if the world, is open at night.
- Napoleon Bonaparte, although a brilliant strategist, was not a noble human.
NOTE: Commas are used around the names when they are used unnecessarily.
Example: My maternal Grandmother, Ester, was the chess champion of her time.
Since Ester is surrounded by commas, it can be assumed that the narrator of the sentence has one maternal grandmother, and the narrator is simply mentioning her name, which is not needed.
Next, check out the following sentence:
Example: My sister’s friend Sarah leaves every day for office at sharp 8 a.m
Since no commas have been placed around Sarah, it can be assumed that the narrator has many friends, out of which the name, Sarah, is important to identify the specific friend who is punctual.
Rule 7: With Dates and Places
Rule 7a: A comma should be placed between the city and/or state and/or nation (present at the end of the sentence).
- My schooling was from New York, U.S.A
- They went for their tour to Rome, Italy.
Rule 7b: A comma should be placed after the state and nation if they are present in the beginning or middle of a sentence.
- I finished my schooling from New York, U.S.A, fifteen years back.
Rule 7c: Similar rules apply for date and year
- A comma between the date and the year (when they are at the end).
Example: She was born in Toronto on August 10, 1997.
- A comma after the date and the year. (when they are in the beginning or in the middle).
Example: On June 5, 1993, we shifted to Toronto
NOTE: You should omit the comma if there is no day of the month in the sentence.
- July 1776 was an important year in the history of America.
- We shifted in June of 1993.
Rule 8: After the addressing name
When a person or a group is being directly addressed in a sentence, make sure to insert a comma after that person/group. In the case when the person is only being mentioned but not being addressed, no comma is needed.
- First of all, Rita, you need to complete the first exercise of the chapter.
- Michael, please accept my condolences for the death of your grandfather.
I don’t believe Zara will make it to the gathering. (Here, Zara is just being referred, not addressed, so a comma was not placed).
Rule 9: Before Attributing Quotes
Place the comma outside the quotation marks if the attribution (specifying the writer) comes before the quote.
Example: Sania called out, “Don’t go there.”
Place the comma within the quotation marks, if the attribution comes after the quote.
Example: “Don’t go there,” called out Sania.
Rule 10: Before every sequence of three numbers
A comma should be placed before every sequence of 3 numbers in case of writing a number bigger than 999. (Exceptions are when we write house numbers and years)
Example: 150,000, 65,784,563
Fun Mnemonic to remember the General Comma Rules
- The: Three number sequence (comma is before)
- Country: Coordinating conjunctions (comma is before)
- Famous (for): Follow-up words (comma is before)
- Snake charmers: Subordinating conjunctions (comma is after)
- Ayurveda: Attributing Quotes (comma is before)
- I: Introductory words (comma is after)
- N: Non-essential words (comma is after)
- D: Dates and Places (comma is after)
- I: Items in a series (commas are in between)
- A: Addressing a name (comma is after)