How to Use Commas

This is part one in our original grammar series.

Today, we discuss the comma. It has rules attached to it that are easy to forget, and often hard to understand.

Which of these sentences is correctly punctuated?

comma 1A) Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” describes the crazy narrator’s murder of the old man he lives with.
B) Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is as enjoyable as it is educational.
C) Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, is as enjoyable as it is educational.


comma 2A) Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher is clearly a saint.

B) Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, is clearly a saint.


comma 3A) She is a lost little girl.

B) She is a lost, little girl.


comma 4

A) That’s not my sister’s porcupine, however, it does have a certain resemblance.
B) That’s not my sister’s porcupine; despite its resemblance.
C) That’s not my sister’s porcupine; however, it does have a certain resemblance.


Original text: “Faulkner’s run-on sentences reflect his modernist genius; they also drive me nuts.”

comma 5A) “Faulkner’s run-on sentences reflect his modernist genius,” the editor opined.
B) “Faulkner’s run-on sentences reflect his modernist genius;” the editor opined.
C) “Faulkner’s run-on sentences reflect his modernist genius”, the editor opined.

Answers: 1. b 2. b 3. a 4. c 5. a

If you got any answers wrong, read on for our five simple comma rules:

1. Commas and the titles of literary works

It is tempting to write an opening sentence like this: Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” describes the crazy narrator’s murder of the old man he lives with. The problem is that by surrounding the title of Poe’s works with commas, you are implying that Poe only wrote one short story. The commas here denote a non-restrictive modifier (that is, information that isn’t necessary for someone to understand the sentence). So while it’s perfectly acceptable (or it will be until July) to write Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is as enjoyable as it is educational, it’s rather confusing if one writes Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, is as enjoyable as it is educational (and not only because it definitely isn’t). The difference is that Harper Lee has only written one novel, while Herman Melville has written many. The appropriate way to write the second sentence is Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick is as enjoyable as it is educational.

2. Commas used like parentheses (more nonrestrictive modifiers)

As long as we’re talking about restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers (repress your collective groan), let’s discuss the oft-neglected second comma. You know it goes there. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher is clearly a saint would look a lot better to your poor editors if it read Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher, is clearly a saint. “Helen Keller’s teacher” isn’t necessary for you to figure out who the subject of the sentence is, and therefore is a nonrestrictive modifier (and must have two commas—count ‘em, two).

3. Commas between adjectives

Nobody ever satisfactorily explained this to me—they used big obsolete words and dizzying grammatical terms. And then someone taught me one easy trick. If you’re debating whether to put a comma between your adjectives, ask yourself if you would stick the word “and” in between them. If you wouldn’t, then there’s a good chance no comma is needed. Lost and little girl? Nope. Lost little girl it is.

4. Semicolons are not commas

They sound like commas in that they mark a pause, but they are devious and easy to misuse. The thing to remember is that on both sides of a semicolon must be two independent clauses—so sometimes they can go where a comma would, but other times they can’t. For example, this one is just fine; it demonstrates excellent semicolon usage. But this one; sadly, isn’t.

5. Commas and quotations

Your commas generally go inside the final quotation mark, unless you are citing something in the text and using parentheses, “in which case it goes after the parenthesis” (citation), like that. Semicolons and colons, however, are relegated to the outside of the final quotation mark.

3 Comments

  1. Pimion

    Thank you for this post! I’ve always had problems with using comma, will regularly check your comma rules from now 🙂

Comments are closed.