The Comma

The comma is the most frequent and the most complicated of all marks of punctuation. It is least reducible to rule and most subject to variation, depending on the need to be clear or emphatic, the preferences of individual writers, and even fashion.

l> Coordinated Independent Clauses

Coordinated elements are grammatically identical constructions in the same sentence joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, and the correlatives either.. or, neither.. nor, both ... and, not only.. but). Any part of a sentence may be coordinated: two subjects, two verbs, two objects, two adjectivals, two adverbials, two independent clauses.

As a very general rule, two coordinated independent clauses are punctuated with a comma; lesser elements, such as words, phrases, and dependent clauses, are not so punctuated. But exceptions occur, depending on the length and complexity of the constructions. Let's look at several examples.

Two coordinated independent clauses are usually separated by a comma, placed immediately before the conjunction:

It [history] is a story that cannot be told in dry lines, and its meaning cannot be conveyed in a species of geometry. Herbert Butterfield

When such coordinated clauses are complicated and contain internal commas, the stronger semicolon may be used to separate them, as we saw on page 282. On the other hand when they are short, obviously related, and contain no internal commas, the comma between them may be omitted:

They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. Ernest Hemingway

The Comma Link

A comma link is a comma used between independent clauses that are paratactic—that is, not joined by one of the coordinating conjunctions but simply run together. The semicolon is the conventional mark in such a construction (see pages 282-83), and employing a comma is generally regarded as a fault. Under certain circumstances, however, a comma may be used between paratactic clauses (though it is never obligatory). The clauses must be short and simple and contain no internal stops; the relationship of ideas should be immediately clear; and the sentences should move rapidly with only light pauses:

A memoir is history, it is based on evidence. E. M. Forsler The crisis was past, the prospects were favorable.

Samuel Hopkins Adams

When three or more such short, obviously related independent clauses are joined paratactically, comma links are even more frequent:

Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. Geoige Orwell

Sheep in the pasture do not seem to fear phantom sheep beyond the fence, mice don't look for mouse goblins in the clock, birds do not worship a divine thunderbird. Susanne K. Langer

He becomes more callous, the population becomes more hostile, the situation grows more tense, and the police force is increased.

James Baldwin

The last sentence (about racial tensions in Harlem between white policemen and black residents) illustrates the particular advantage of comma links. By allowing rapid movement from clause to clause, the punctuation reinforces our sense of the inevitability of social cause and effect.

Easy rules about when a comma link is effective and when it is a comma fault do not exist. Certainly long, complicated paratactic independent clauses (especially those containing commas) ought to be punctuated by semicolons, not commas. And even when the clauses are not particularly long and contain no commas within themselves, the relationships among ideas may not be sufficiently close and obvious to allow a comma link. In this sentence, for instance, a semicolon would be clearer:

INCORRECT We are overloaded with garbage, in fact we have so much excess garbage that it is being used to make hills to ski on.

For the inexperienced writer the safest course is to use a semicolon between uncoordinated independent clauses unless he or she is very sure that a comma will help the rhythm of the sentence and will not confuse the reader.

As the foregoing discussion suggests, the punctuation of independent clauses is not easily explained in a simple rule. Current practice is summed up in the following table:


I. When coordinated: A. Conventional punctuation: comma

B. Optional punctuation I, Semicolon a. If the clauses are long and internally punctuated b. If—even with short clauses—a long pause is effective 2. No stop at all

If the clauses are short, unpunctuated, clearly related, and a pause is not desirable II. When paratactic:

A. Conventional punctuation: semicolon

B. Optional punctuation: comma

If the clauses are short, clearly related, contain no commas, and fast movement is desirable

£> The Comma with Coordinated Elements Other Than Independent Clauses

Two coordinated subjects, verbs, objects, or modifiers are not usually punctuated:

Jack and Jill went up the hill. NOT Jack, and Jill went up the hill.

We saw them and were surprised. NOT We saw them, and were surprised.

He picked up his hat and books. NOT He picked up his hat, and books.

The men were tired and discouraged. NOT The men were tired, and discouraged.

However, commas may be helpful between the members of such coordinated pairs when the first is long or when the writer wants a pause for emphasis. Thus in the following sentence the comma helps the reader to distinguish the two long predicates that follow the subject ("the twentieth century"):

The twentieth century finds this explanation too vapidly place, and demands something more mystic. Geoige Bernard Shaw

In the next examples the comma separating two coordinated verbs (while not necessary because of their length) gives the idea more emphasis:

We turned to them, and paused.

At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. T. E. Lawrence t> The Comma with Lists and Series

A list or series consists of three or more grammatically parallel words or constructions such as three of four subjects of the same verb, say, or three verbs of the same subject, or four or five adjectives modifying the same noun.

The items in a list, or series, may be joined by coordinating conjunctions ("She bought bread and eggs and cheese") or by parataxis ("She bought bread, eggs, cheese"). The most common method is to combine parataxis and coordination, linking the last two items with and, or, or but not, and joining the others paratactically: "She bought bread, eggs, and cheese."

When a list or series is completely paratactic, commas are used between the items:

Oriental luxury goods, jade, silk, gold, spices, vermilion, jewels, had formerly come overland by way of the Caspian Sea. . ..

Robert Craves

When it is completely coordinated, the commas are usually omitted:

She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. jean Rhys

In the combined method (the most frequent practice), a comma goes between each pair of paratactic elements and is optional between the final coordinated pair, the choice depending on the preference of the writer or the policy of an editor. The first of these examples uses the comma; the second does not:

Fifty years ago, when all type was set by hand, the labor of several men was required to print, fold, and arrange in piles the signatures of a book. Carl Becker

His plan was to clinch his teeth, shut his eyes, whirl the club round his head and bring it down with sickening violence in the general direction of the sphere. p. G.

But whether you choose to place a comma between the final coordinated items or to leave it out, you should follow the same practice consistently in any piece of writing.

Finally about lists and series, remember that semicolons are conventionally used between all items when any item contains a comma within itself.


I. Combined parataxis and coordination: commas and optional comma bread, eggs, and cheese

II. Completely paratactic: commas bread, eggs, cheese

III. Completely coordinated

A. Conventional punctuation: no stops bread and eggs and cheese

B. Optional punctuation: commas for emphasis or rhythm bread, and eggs, and cheeses

IV. Series with a comma in one or more items: semicolons bread, which she found too moldy; eggs; and cheese

The Comma with Adjectivals

An adjectival is a word, phrase, or clause functioning as an adjective.

Single-Word Adjectives

Most single-word adjectives are restrictive—that is, essential to the meaning of the nouns they modify. A restrictive adjective is placed after the noun marker, if there is one (a, an the, some, this, any, and so on), and is not punctuated (italics added in the following examples):

The angry man sat down abruptly.

However, adjectives are often used in a rather different sense, being either placed before the noun marker (when one is present) and followed by a comma, or after the noun and set off by commas:

Angry, the man sat down. The man, angry, sat down.

They may even be pushed to the end of the clause and preceded by a comma:

The man sat down, angry.

In such patterns (especially common with participles acting as adjectives), the word really functions more like an adverb. It tells us something about the action (in this case, how or why the man sat down) rather than about the noun (the man himself). Such "adjectives" are punctuated.

Finally about single-word adjectives: when two or more are used together they are not usually punctuated if they are ordinated. However, should emphasis require it, the second of a pair of coordinated adjectives may be set off by commas:

It [England] always had a peculiar, and a fond, relationship with the papacy. Paul Johnson

When two or more adjectives are run together without conjunctions, they must be punctuated for clarity:

A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life. . . . Henry James

Participial Adjectival Phrases

Used restrictively, participial phrases follow the noun and are not preceded by a comma:

A man leading a horse was walking inland from the sea.

Often, however, participial phrases function nonrestric-tively. They supply pertinent information about the noun they modify, but not information essential to understanding its meaning in the sentence. Nonrestrictive participles are always punctuated. They may precede their noun; follow it, introduced between it and the verb or remainder of the clause; or be postponed to the end of the clause. In any case they must be followed, set off, or preceded by commas:

Born to lowly circumstances, he came up the easy way.

Samuel Hopkins Adams

Words, being but symbols by which a man expresses his ideas, are an accurate measure of the range of his thought at any given time.

Albert C. Baugh

For years he had been blackmailing the rector, threatening to publish the facts about a certain youthful escapade of his dead wife.

Robin G. Collingwood

Adjectival Clauses

Adjectival clauses are less flexible in their positioning than the participial phrase: they must follow their noun. But they too may be either restrictive or nonrestrictive, and they are punctuated accordingly. Restrictive clauses are not punctuated; nonrestrictive ones are set off by commas when they fall inside the main clause, preceded by commas when they fall at the end:2

At the apex of the social pyramid, which was still nominally Republican, stood the Emperor Augustus. Robert Graves

All images are symbols, which make us think about the things they mean. Susanne K. Langer

Nonrestrictive clauses are sometimes used in a loose sense, to modify not a single noun but an entire idea. Such clauses are introduced by which, placed at the end of the sentence or clause they modify, and always preceded by a comma:

Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not. ... Bertrand Russel


I. Single-word adjectives Restrictive: no comma

The angry man sat down. Nonrestrictive: comma(s) Angry, the man sat down. The man, angry, sat down. The man sat down, angry.

II. Participial adjectival phrases

Restrictive: no comma

The man sitting down looked angry. Nonrestrictive: comma(s) Sitting down, the man looked angry. The man, sitting down, looked angry.

III. Adjectival clauses

Restrictive: no comma

The man who was sitting down looked angry. Nonrestrictive: comma(s) The man, who was sitting down, looked angry.

2. This rule reflects current American practice. Sometimes in older usage all adjectival clauses were punctuated without regard to whether they were restrictive or nonrestrictive in meaning.

> The Comma with Adverbials

An adverbial is any word or construction used as an adverb. Adverbials are more flexible in their positioning than adjec-tivals, modify more kinds of words, and convey a wider range of meanings. Consequently their punctuation is especially variable. In the discussion that follows, advice about using commas with adverbials must be understood as loose generalizations, which skillful writers frequently ignore or adapt to their particular need to be emphatic or clear or rhythmic.

Single-Word Adverbs

When simple adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, they are not usually punctuated (italics are added in the following examples):

He wept quietly.

The people were extremely happy. Everyone was very deeply concerned.

Sentence adverbs (those that modify an entire clause rather than any single word) are more frequently punctuated. In composition, sentence adverbs often take the form of connectives, qualifiers, and what may be called (words like fortunately or unhappily that express a writer's attitude toward the statement he or she is making). Mostly such words are punctuated, whether in the opening, interrupting, or closing position (italics added):

Further, Hamlet's world is a world of riddles. Maynard Mack

Unhappily, the gibe has point. Brand Blanshard

In spite of all these dissimilarities, however, the points of resemblance were quite as profound. Bertrand Russel

But, luckily, even at the dreariest moments of our pilgrimage there were compensations. Aldous Huxley

I missed that class, fortunately. student

There is, however, considerable variation in punctuating such sentence adverbs. Some (however, for example) are always punctuated. With others (therefore, luckily, fortunately) the probably more often used than may be omitted if the writer does not like the pause and feels that clarity does not require it.

When the coordinating conjunctions and, but, for, or are used to introduce a sentence, they are not punctuated, even though they are acting, for all intents and purposes, as conjunctive adverbs:

But we stayed. NOT But, we stayed.

Adverbial Prepositional Phrases

In the first position, when they open a sentence, adverbial prepositional phrases may or may not be punctuated. Much depends on the conventions regarding phrases, on the writer's own preference, and on the need for clarity or emphasis. Some idiomatic phrases are usually followed by commas; this is especially the case with those acting as sentence adverbs signaling logical relationship or attitude (for example, on the other hand, of course):

For example, in 1913 there was produced in Great Britain seven billion yards of cotton cloth for export alone. Carl Becker

Less formulaic phrases are often punctuated or not, according to the writer's sense of rhythm:

ln a crude way, Mickey Spillane is something of an innovator.

Charles J. Rolo

Of Pushkin's shorter stories The Queen of Spades is perhaps the most entertaining. Rosemary Edmonds

However, if there is any chance that an initial phrase may be misconnected, a comma should always be used. These two sentences, for instance, would be clearer with commas:


In writing these signals must be replaced by punctuation.

In business machines are built to become obsolete within a few years.

In each case the object of the preposition can be misread as grammatically tied to the following word, as if the writers were talking about "writing these signals" and "business machines."

Within a sentence adverbial phrases are punctuated with great variability. What the phrase modifies, where it is placed, what rhythm or emphasis the writer wants are all important. A key consideration is whether or not the phrase is felt as an is, as intruding into the normal grammatical flow of the sentence. If it is, set off the phrase by commas. Interrupting phrases often come between subject and verb:

Jerusalem, of course, contains more than ghosts and architectural j monstrosities. Aldous Huxley 1

Barrett Wendell, in his admirable book on writing, points out that clearness and vividness often turn on mere specificity.

Brand Blanshard

But they may come elsewhere:

And their former masters were, from the start, resolved to maintain the old difference. Oscar Handlin

Coughlin's activities were clearly, after Pearl Harbor, intolerable.

Wallace Stegner

Newspapermen have always felt superstitious, among other things, about Lindbergh. John Lardner

In such cases the writer is seeking clarity or emphasis. The option is not so much whether to punctuate the phrase as where to place it. Any of the phrases in the three examples above could be positioned, and more idiomatically, at the end and would then probably not need commas. But placed where they are, they do require punctuation.

At the close of a sentence or clause, adverbial phrases are not generally punctuated:

The party adjourned to the kitchen Herbert Asbury He was quiet and in-dwelling from early boyhood on.

John Lardner

Final adverbial phrases may be isolated for emphasis, though the technique quickly loses value if overworked:

They were not men of equal status, despite the professed democratic procedure. Harry Hansen

And why is this picture an absurdity—as it is, of course?

George Orwell

Adverbial Clauses

In initial position, when they precede the main clause, adverbial clauses are usually punctuated:

If we figure out the answer, we feel devilishly smart; if we don't, we enjoy a juicy surprise. Charles J. Rolo

When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

George Orwell

A writer has the option of omitting the comma after a short initial adverbial clause if clarity will not suffer. (British writers seem to exercise that choice more often than do Americans):

When he describes the past the historian has to recapture the richness of the moments, . . . Herbert Butterfield

However, the comma should never be left out if there is any possibility that readers will see an unintended grammatical connection between the last word of the adverbial clause and the first word of the following construction. In the sentence below, for instance, a comma after "sail" would prevent readers from the misstep of thinking the writer is referring to "sail boats":

When you are first learning to sail boats seem to be very cumbersome things.

Adverbial clauses in an interrupting position are conventionally punctuated:

The whole thing, as he himself recognized, was a clean sporting venture. P. C.

On occasion, if no operations were scheduled for the next day, he would be up early and out on an all-day hunt after getting only one Or tWO hours of Ralph K. Andrist

Adverbial clauses in the dosing position may or may not be punctuated. The primary considerations are clarity and rhythm. A comma generally helps readers follow the grammar, especially before clauses expressing a concession or qualification:

The Supreme Court upheld the conviction, although the judges could not agree on any one opinion. Roger Fisher

Now I seldom cuss, although at first I was quick to open fire at everything that tried my patience. Richard E. Byrd

On the other hand, some writers prefer to omit the comma when the main and the adverbial clauses are both short and unpunctuated within themselves. The comma is often omitted before because if the pause might seem overly emphatic:

Locke thought traditional theology worthless because it was not primarily concerned with truth. Paul Johnson

On one occasion, however, a following should be preceded by a comma. This is when it comes after a negative statement and is intended as a straightforward explanation of that statement:

They did not elect him, because they distrusted him.

Without the comma such a sentence may be read as an ironic assertion that "they did elect him and certainly did not distrust him."


I. Single-word adverbs

A. Sentence adverbs: usually punctuated, whether in the initial, closing, or interrupting position

However, the people left. The people, however, left. The people left, however. But there are exceptions Fortunately(,) the people left. The people therefore left.

B. Adverbs modifying verbs and other modifiers: not punctuated unless they are in an unusual position, when a comma may be used for clarity or emphasis.

The people slowly left. EMPHATIC {Slowly, the people left.

The people left, slowly.

II. Adverbial phrase

A. Initial position: punctuation optional

On the the men were satisfied

B. Closing position: not generally punctuated, though comma may be used for emphasis

The men were satisfied on the whole. EMPHATIC The men were satisfied, on the whole.

C. Interrupting position: punctuation conventionally required

The men, on the whole, were satisfied. The men were, on the whole, satisfied

III. Adverbial clause

A. Initial position: usually punctuated

When the sun went down, the women left camp.

OPTION WITH SHORT, CLEARLY RELATED CLAUSES When the sun went down the women left camp.

B. Closing position: not usually punctuated, though a comma may be used for emphasis or clarity

The women left camp when the sun went down.

EMPHATIC The women left camp, when the sun went down.

C. Interrupting position: conventionally punctuated

The women, when the sun went down, left camp.

t> Comma with the Main Elements of the Sentence

The main elements of a subject, verb, and ob-

not separated by commas except under unusual conditions. Very occasionally when the subject is not a single word but a long construction, such as a noun clause, a comma may be put at its end to signal the verb (italics are added in the following examples):

What makes the generation of the '60s different, is that it is largely inner-directed and uncontrolled by adult-doyens. Time magazine

In such a sentence the comma between the subject and the verb may help readers to follow the grammar.

Commas may also be used with the main elements in the case of is, when the subject, verb, and object are arranged in something other than their usual order. Sometimes the pattern is object, subject, verb; if the object is a long construction, a comma may be set between it and the subject:

What he actually meant by it, I cannot imagine. Aldous Huxley

The most frequent kind of inversion in composition occurs with the idiom "I think" ("I suppose," "I imagine," "I hope" are other variations):

The lectures, / understand, are given and may even be taken.

Stephen Leacock

Lenin, on the contrary, might, / think, have seemed to me at once a narrow-minded fanatic and a cheap cynic. Bertrand Russell

In this type of sentence the main subject/verb is the "I think," "I understand." The rest (which contains the key idea) is a contact clause acting as the direct object, telling us what is understood or thought. If the sentence were in straightforward order, no comma would be necessary between the main elements:

! understand the lectures are given.. .. I think Lenin might have seemed

But when the "I understand" or "I think" is intruded within the noun clause, the subject/verb must be treated as an interrupting construction and set off by commas.

Comma with Appositives

An appositive is a word or construction which refers to the same thing as another and is (usually) set immediately after it. When appositives are restrictive, they are not punctuated:

The argument that the corporations create new psychological needs in order to sell their wares is equally flimsy. Ellen Willis

In that sentence the clause is in restrictive apposition to the subject "argument"; it specifies "argument," and the noun would be relatively meaningless without it. Notice that the clause is not set off by commas. (Sometimes, however, a comma is placed after such a clause—though not before—to mark its end and signal a new construction.)

Often appositives are nonrestrictive. In that case they must be punctuated. Usually such appositives follow the noun and should be preceded by a comma (and followed by one if they do not close the sentence):

Poskitt, the d'Artagnanof the links, was a man who brought to the tee the tactics which in his youth had won him such fame as a hammer thrower. p. G.

The newcomers were pagans, worshippers ofWotan and other Teutonic gods. Margaret Schlauch

She was a splendid woman, this Mme. Guyon. w. H. Lewis

Appositives occasionally open a clause or sentence, thus preceding the word to which they are in apposition. Then they must be followed by a comma, as in this example where a series of three appositives precedes the subject ("Bishop An-drewes"):

A gifted preacher, a profound scholar, and a great and good man, Bishop Andrewes was one of the lights of the Church of England.

G. P. V. Akrigg t> Comma with Absolutes

An absolute is a construction that is included within a sentence but is not really a grammatical part of that sentence; it serves as a kind of loose clausal

Nominative absolutes, the most common kind in composition, may precede, follow, or be intruded into the main clause. In all cases they are punctuated (the absolutes are italicized in the following examples):

The savings of the nation having been absorbed by Wall Street, the people were persuaded to borrow money on their farms, factories, homes, machinery, and every other tangible asset that they might earn high interest rates and take big profits out of the rise in the market. Irving Stone

The bluffs along the water's edge were streaked with black and red and yellow, their colors deepened by recent rains.

John G. Neihardi

The official, his white shirt clinging with sweat to his ribs, received me with a politeness clearly on the inner edge of neurosis.

James Cameron

Participial and infinitive absolutes are also punctuated: Allowing for hyperbole and halving the figure, that is still one hell of a pile of pulp. Pauline Kael

To revert for a moment to the story told in the first person, it is plain that in that case the narrator has no such liberty. . . .

Percy Lubbock t> Comma with Suspended Constructions

A suspended construction occurs when two or more units are hooked grammatically to the same thing. It is really a form of parallelism, but an unusual or emphatic form, which readers may find difficult. Hence such constructions are often (though not invariably) punctuated:

Many people believed, and still do, that he was taking Nazi money to run his machine. Wallace Stegner

Prescott and Parkman were willing, and Motley reluctant, to concede that the sixteenth-century Spaniard's desire to convert American Indians had not been hypocritical. David Levin

When the idiomatic phrase more or less is treated as a suspended construction, it always requires commas to distinguish it from its more common meaning. Usually more or less signifies a qualified affirmation, and then is not punctuated:

He was more or less interested. = He was mildly interested.

But when more or less is used in a strict disjunctive that is, to mean either more or less, but not must be set off by commas:

It is hard to say whether the payment for votes has become more, or less, important. Ronald P. Dore

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