Teach English Writing – Commas, Three Essential Rules
Learning English rules governing the use of commas is tough. My writer’s grammar guide has 20 pages about commas, half of which includes exceptions to the rules. This lesson helps ESL students become better writers by showing three common uses for commas and some exceptions. It’s not comprehensive. Instead, it builds knowledge, slowly and progressively. Too much grammar at one time is like drinking water from a fire hydrant: it can be overwhelming.
Commas can be used to:
- create space in a list if items
- mark the introduction of a sentence
- separate two or more independent clauses using a FANBOY
Rule 1: Use a comma in lists.
- Add a comma at the end of a long list just before the word AND.
- A comma often – but not always – separates descriptive words (e.g. adjectives).
- Everything is ready for my trip. I have my camera, money, and airplane ticket.
- This outdoor gear shop has everything travelers might want: rainproof coats, hiking boots, and backpacks.
- These juicy, delicious apples cost a lot of money.
- She wore a pretty, green dress.
There is an exception when you have a sentence with several adjectives. Sometimes a comma is used to separate the adjectives, sometimes not. Here are two tests that tell us when commas are needed.
- If we can put the word AND between two adjectives and the sentence reads okay, insert a comma. If the word AND does not make sense, no comma is needed.
- If you can change the word order of the adjectives and the sentence reads okay, insert a comma. If the sentence looks bad, no comma is needed.
- Three large black cats sat on my car. (okay with no commas)
- Three large AND black cats sat on my car. (not OK, so no comma)
- Three black large cats sat on my car. (not okay because of adjective word order – size first, color second)
- She is a kind, gentle, intelligent woman. (good with commas)
- She is a kind and gentle and intelligent woman. (reads okay, so use commas)
- She is a gentle, intelligent, kind woman. (changed word order reads okay, so use commas)
Rule 2: Put a comma in front of a FANBOYS joining two independent clauses.
- FANBOYS are short words that join clauses: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
- Independent clause is a phrase that can be a sentence by itself.
- Julie wants to go to university, but she didn’t get a scholarship.
- The construction workers were making a lot of noise at 2 am, so I called the police.
- The teacher talked about tomorrow’s test, and the students played with their smartphones.
1. If the sentence has one subject and two verbs, no comma is used (e.g. one person did two things).
- The young boy walked on the street and thought about his new part-time job.
- I work all day and sleep all night.
2. Don’t use a comma if the clauses are short.
- We had a fight and she left.
- The train pulled out of the station and we were on our way.
Rule 3: After an introduction.
Many sentences begin with an introduction that should be separated from the independent clause. These introductions are often prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses (e.g. adverb clauses). Commas are important because they make the sentence clear.
Consider this example:
- When the family was ready to eat the dog sat up and barked.
- When the family was ready to eat, the dog sat up and barked.
- There is a subject and a verb but it can’t be a sentence by itself.
- There are many kinds of subordinate clauses.
- Begin with words like when, because, before, if, as, and since.
- Give the reader important information and answer questions about when, where, why, how much, etc.
- In America, football is a popular sport and big business.
- When the wallpaper is finished, the office will look brighter.
- Though his behaviour seemed rather odd, Professor John Nash was considered a brilliant math teacher.
Click the link to get practice questions and answers on a pdf file.
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