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A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.
Here are the main cases when you need to use a comma:
in direct speech
to separate clauses
to mark off certain parts of a sentence
Using commas in lists
You need to put a comma between the different items in a list, as in the following sentences:
Saturday morning started with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and French toast.
The school has a vegetable garden in which the children grow cabbages, onions, potatoes, and carrots.
The final comma in these lists (before the word and) is known as the serial comma. Not all writers or publishers use it, but it is used by Oxford Dictionaries some people refer to it as the Oxford comma. Using it can make your meaning clearer. Take a look at this sentence:
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon and ham and cheese.
It isnt entirely clear from this sentence whether the writer is listing three or four of their favourite sandwich fillings: is ham one of their favourites and cheese another, or is it ham and cheese that they like? Adding an Oxford comma makes the meaning clear:
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon, and ham and cheese.
Using commas in direct speech
When a writer quotes a speakers words exactly as they were spoken, this is known as direct speech. If the piece of direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you need to use a comma to introduce the direct speech. The comma comes before the first quotation mark. Note that the final quotation mark follows the full stop at the end of the direct speech:
Steve replied, No problem.
You also need to use a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, if the speech comes before the information about who is speaking. In this case, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:
I dont agree, I replied.
Here we are,&#39; they said.
There are two exceptions to this rule. If a piece of direct speech takes the form of a question or an exclamation, you should end it with a question mark or an exclamation mark, rather than a comma:
Stop him! she shouted.
Did you see that? he asked.
Direct speech is often broken up by the information about who is speaking. In these cases, you need a comma to end the first piece of speech (inside the quotation mark) and another comma before the second piece (before the quotation mark):
Yes, he said, and I always keep my promises.
Thinking back, she added, I didnt expect to win.
See more about Punctuation in direct speech.
Using commas to separate clauses
Commas are used to separate clauses in a complex sentence (i.e. a sentence which is made up of a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses).
The following examples show the use of commas in two complex sentences:
Having had lunch,
we went back to work.
I first saw her in Paris,
where I lived in the early nineties.
If the commas were removed, these sentences wouldnt be as clear but the meaning would still be the same. There are different types of subordinate clause, though, and in some types the use of commas can be very important.
A subordinate clause beginning with who, which, that, whom, or where is known as a relative clause. Take a look at this example:
who have young children
may board the aircraft first.
This sentence contains whats known as a restrictive relative clause. Basically, a restrictive relative clause contains information thats essential to the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you left it out, the sentence wouldnt make much sense. If we removed the relative clause from the example above, then the whole point of that sentence would be lost and wed be left with the rather puzzling statement:
Passengers may board the aircraft first.
You should not put commas round a restrictive relative clause.
The other type of subordinate clause beginning with who, which, whom, etc. is known as a non-restrictive relative clause. A non-restrictive relative clause contains information that is not essential to the overall meaning of a sentence. Take a look at the following example:
who has two young children,
has a part-time job in the library.
If you remove this clause, the meaning of the sentence isnt affected and it still makes perfect sense. All thats happened is that weve lost a bit of extra information about Mary:
Mary has a part-time job in the library.
You need to put a comma both before and after a non-restrictive relative clause.
Using commas to mark off parts of a sentence
Commas are used to separate a part of a sentence that is an optional aside and not part of the main statement.
Gunpowder is not, of course, a chemical compound.
His latest film, Calypso Dreams, opens next month.
In these sentences, the role of the commas is similar to their function in non-restrictive relative clauses: they mark off information that isnt essential to the overall meaning. Using commas in this way can really help to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Take a look at this example:
Cynthias daughter, Sarah, is a midwife.
The writers use of commas tells us that Cynthia has only one daughter. If you removed Sarahs name from the sentence, there would still be no doubt as to who was the midwife:
Cynthias daughter is a midwife.
If you rewrite the original sentence without commas its meaning changes:
Cynthias daughter Sarah is a midwife.
The lack of commas tells us that the name Sarah is crucial to the understanding of the sentence. It shows that Cynthia has more than one daughter, and so the name of the one who is a midwife needs to be specified for the meaning to be clear.
If you arent sure whether youve used a pair of commas correctly, try replacing them with brackets or removing the information enclosed by the commas altogether, and then see if the sentence is still understandable, or if it still conveys the meaning you intended.