Using Commas

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize the standard uses of commas

Now that we’ve reviewed the concept of a complete sentence and built confidence on that concept, let’s turn to commas and apply our understanding of the sentence to our understanding of the use of the comma.

A drawing of a comma.

Figure 1. Reading sentences that contain commas aloud can be helpful in determining if your comma usage is correct. More often than not, incorrect usage will result in a sentence that doesn’t sound quite right when spoken aloud.

One of the tricky aspects of thinking about commas is that there are so many different rules. It can be hard to decide which rule applies to the situation. Take this sentence:

  • My sister, loves to eat ice cream.

What is that comma doing there and how can we decide if it’s correct?

One way to begin is to ask yourself whether the stuff surrounded by commas can be removed from the sentence. In this case, if we remove “My sister,” we are left with “loves to eat ice cream.” That’s not a complete sentence, so that’s a clue that the comma there is wrong.

Let’s look at a different example and utilize the same test.

  • My brother loves bike riding, swimming, and surfing.

If we remove swimming (between the two commas), we are left with “My brother loves bike riding and surfing.” That is a complete sentence, so that’s a clue that the commas here are correct.

Here’s an example along these lines. Practice by checking to see if you can remove what’s surrounded by commas and still have the sentence work.

Try It

 

Let’s try some more practice a different way. Take a look at these pieces of sentences using commas and decide whether you need to insert a full sentence or something else. Then, complete the sentence in your own way.

Our examples above were commas that involved lists (wash your hands, cover our mouth, and stay home) or commas with compound sentences and conjunctions. (The dog is happy, and she will get a treat—two sentences combined with the conjunction and.)

The removing trick also works with transition words and introductory phrases. Take this sentence:

  • After class, I feel so tired out.

What is that comma doing there? Is it correct? Try removing what comes before the comma!

  • I feel so tired out.

That still works as a sentence. That tells us the comma is correct. Take another sentence:

  • In the midst of the Covid-19 quarantine, I found myself struggling to keep my focus, and unhappy.

Here we have two commas. Let’s think about the first one. If we remove “In the midst of Covid-19”, we are left with “I found myself struggling to keep my focus, and unhappy.” That works as a sentence. However, if we remove “I found myself struggling to keep my focus”, we are left with “In the midst of Covid-19 and unhappy.” That does not work. There is a problem with the second comma. We can just remove it:

  • In the midst of Covid-19, I found myself struggling to keep my focus and unhappy.

Now the sentence works if we remove the stuff before the comma. (Another way to think about this is that we have a list of just two things struggling and unhappy. With a list of two things, there is no comma between the two items. I eat milk and cookies NOT I eat milk, and cookies.)

Try It

Writing Workshop: Commas

Take a look at these pieces of sentences and decide what you need to insert after the comma.

  1. During my last semester in college, __________________.
  2.  If I eat my favorite foods,  __________________.
  3. My favorite foods are pizza, ice cream, and _____.
  4. I need to drink coffee in the morning, but ______.

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