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Comma Between Coordinate Adjectives
When multiple adjective modify a noun to an equal degree, they are said to be coordinate and should be separated by commas. One way to tell whether the adjectives are coordinate is to try switching the order of them. If the sentence still sounds natural, the adjectives are coordinate.
Correct: That man is a pompous, self-righteous, annoying idiot. That man is a self-righteous, annoying, pompous idiot. The sweet, scintillating aroma of cinnamon buns filled the kitchen. The scintillating, sweet aroma of cinnamon buns filled the kitchen.
If the adjectives are not coordinate, don’t separate them with a comma.
Incorrect: The adorable, little boy was eating ice cream.
Correct: The adorable little boy was eating ice cream.
Comma Before But
Use a if it is joining two independent clauses:
Incorrect: Cleo is a good singer but she’s an even better dancer.
Correct: Cleo is a good singer, but she’s an even better dancer.
If but is not joining two independent clauses, leave the comma out.
Incorrect: My teacher is tough, but fair.
Correct: My teacher is tough but fair.
Incorrect: Life is, but a dream.
Life is but a dream.
Comma Before And
When you have a list that contains only two items, don’t use a comma before the and.
Incorrect: My dog Charlie is cute, and smart.
Correct: My dog Charlie is cute and smart.
Incorrect: Cleo’s favorite activities are singing on stage, and relaxing in the sunshine.
Correct: Cleo’s favorite activities are singing on stage and relaxing in the sunshine.
When correcting a , that is when joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, put the comma before and.
Commas with Lists
When you have a list that contains more than two elements, use commas to separate them.
Incorrect: Julie loves ice cream books and kittens.
Correct: Julie loves ice cream, books, and kittens.
Correct: Julie loves ice cream, books and kittens.
(The comma before the and in a list of three or more items is optional. See below under Serial Comma for more information.)
Your list might be made up of nouns, as in the example above, but it could also be made up of verbs, adjectives, or clauses. Imagine, for a moment, that you have just finished doing three chores. The chores were:
– Cleaning the house and garage.
– Raking the lawn
– Taking out the garbage.
If you were to list these three chores in a sentence, you would write:
Correct: I cleaned the house and garage, raked the lawn, and took out the garbage.
Correct: I cleaned the house and garage, raked the lawn and took out the garbage.
Serial Comma (Oxford Comma)
As mentioned above, when you are listing three or more items, commas should separate each element of the list. However, the final comma—the one that comes —is optional. This comma is called the serial comma or the oxford comma.
Example Mary needs bread, milk, and butter at the grocery store. (With serial comma)
Example: Mary needs bread, milk and butter at the grocery store. (Without serial comma)
Example: I still have to buy a gift, pack the suitcases, and arrange for someone to water the plants while we’re at the wedding. (With serial comma)
Example: I still have to buy a gift, pack the suitcases and arrange for someone to water the plants while we’re at the wedding. (Without serial comma)
Whether or not you use the serial comma is a style choice. Many newspapers do not use it. Many trade books do use it. In your own writing, you can decide for yourself whether to use it or not—just be consistent.
Keep in mind, though, that occasionally the serial comma is necessary for clarity.
Example: I dedicate this award to my parents, Jane Austen and Albert Einstein.
The sentence above will almost certainly cause readers to do a double-take. Without a serial comma, it looks like “Jane Austen and Albert Einstein” is an appositive, rather than two more elements in a list. To put it another way, the writer seems to be saying that her parents are Jane Austen and Albert Einstein. A serial comma eliminates the possibility of misreading, so even if you’re not using serial commas in your writing, make an exception for sentences like this:
Comma Separating a Verb and Its Object
Don’t separate a transitive verb from its direct object with a comma.
Incorrect: I’m glad I trained, Charlie not to beg for scraps.
Correct: I’m glad I trained Charlie not to beg for scraps.
Incorrect: Mary said, she likes chocolate.
Correct: Mary said she likes chocolate.
Comma with Nonrestrictive Clause
A nonrestrictive clause offers extra information about something you have mentioned in a sentence, but the information isn’t essential to identify the thing you’re talking about. Nonrestrictive clauses are usually introduced by
which or who and should be set off by commas.
Correct: Posey’s Cafe, which Chester recommended, is a fantastic restaurant.
The clause “which Chester recommended” is nonrestrictive because “Posey’s Cafe” is already specific. Identifying it as the restaurant recommended by Chester doesn’t narrow it down any further.
Correct: My wife, whom I love dearly, is a brilliant physicist.
The clause “whom I love dearly” is nonrestrictive because you could remove it and it would still be clear that you’re talking about the same person—“my wife” is already specific.
Comma with Restrictive Clauses
A restrictive clause adds necessary information about something you have mentioned in a sentence. Restrictive clauses are often introduced by that or who and should never be set off by commas.
Incorrect: The cafe, that Chester recommended, is a fantastic restaurant.
Incorrect: The cafe that Chester recommended is a fantastic restaurant.
The clause “that Chester recommended” is essential information in the sentence above. If you removed it, there would be no way to tell which restaurant you were talking about.
Comma Between Correlative Conjunctions
Correlative Conjunctions are conjunctions that come in pairs (such as either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also) and connect words or phrases in a sentence to form a complete thought. Typically, commas are unnecessary with correlative conjunctions.
Incorrect: Either the blue shirt, or the red sweater will look good with your jeans.
Correct: Either the blue shirt or the red sweater will look good with your jeans.
Incorrect: You can wear a pashmina not only for warmth, but also for fashion.
Correct: You can wear a pashmina not only for warmth but also for fashion.
Comma Between Direct Quote and Attributive Tag
An attributive tag is a phrase like “he said” or “she claimed” that identifies the speaker of a quote or piece of dialogue. Attributive tags can come before, after, or even in the middle of a quote. Use commas to separate attributive tags from quotations.
Correct: The professor remarked, “How attentive you have been today!” “Once you know the solution,” Tiffany said, “the whole problem seems very simple.” “You have ice cream on your nose,” my friend snickered. “When you leave the house,” my mother yelled, “don’t slam the door!”
If a quotation before an attributive tag ends in a question mark or exclamation point, however, there’s no need for a comma.
Incorrect: “You have a spider on your nose!”, my friend yelled.
Correct: “You have a spider on your nose!” my friend yelled.
Incorrect: “Where did that spider come from?”, I asked.
Correct: “Where did that spider come from?” I asked.
Comma Inside Quotation Marks
In American English, commas always go before closing quotation marks.
Correct: “Pass me that thesaurus,” said Matthew. “If you knew what was good for you, you’d sit down and finish that essay right now,” my roommate said. “We’re going down to the soup kitchen to help serve dinner,” her mother called.
In British English, however, the convention is the opposite. If you are writing for a British audience, put the comma after the closing quotation mark.
To be continued…
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