Place the Comma in the Right Place!

One of the peskiest little problems I face is the comma. I don’t really know where to place it in my sentences. More often than not, however, I am fond of stuffing my sentences with it, making them sound rather awkward. I am sure you can identify with me.

So to this effect, I did a little bit of research, the results of which I want to share with you. Yes, your problems with little Mr.Comma are about to end—forever!

Mr. Comma

Why is the placement of the Comma so important?

Probably you are wondering: why care about the comma anyway? It is not that important, is it? Actually it is. It has the power to determine the meaning of a sentence. It is interesting how the meaning of a sentence can be changed just by a comma. Read the following sentence:

He did not fight Mr. Barley.

You got the sense of the above sentence right? Someone, whose name is not disclosed, did not fight Mr. Barley.

Now, let us place just a tiny little comma and see what happens:

He did not fight, Mr. Barley.

See how things change now? Now Mr. Barley is being informed that someone did not fight.

See what a little comma can do? Still don’t see the point? Hmm…

Oh! Oh! I was just reading through one of my stories and noticed a tiny little problem, and of course, it involves the comma. The sentence below is an extract from Hegded-in:

Yes indeed, she was hedged-in that girl, and from the very beginning I knew that her heart was too cramped up for room to accommodate me; because she was that girl I could never have.

I forgot a comma somewhere. Do you see it?

Here: Yes, indeed, she was hedged-in that girl… between hedged-in and girl

Ugh! I detest it so much when I do that. So the sentence should read:

Yes indeed, she was hedged-in, that girl; and from the very beginning I knew that her heart was too cramped up for room to accommodate me, because she was that girl I could never have.

Notice too that I have now placed a semicolon between girl and and. I’ll explain that soon.

What was that you are asking?

Should I place the Comma between adjectives?

Not always.

Let us assume that you want to describe the hero in your story. The following are his characteristics:

  • tall
  • dark
  • handsome

Now what you want to do is put all these descriptions in the same sentence. How would you go about it? Obviously you would say:

He was tall dark and handsome.

But question is: where would you put the comma(s), if at all? Ewww…This is pretty tough. Okay, how about this:

He was tall, dark and handsome.
It makes perfect sense to place a comma between tall and dark. The conjunction and is necessary to introduce the last adjective in the sentence.

Take a note of this however:

He was a tall, dark, handsome man.

If the noun or object being described is placed at the end of the sequence of adjectives, the conjunction and can actually be dropped. Never place a comma between the last adjective and the noun it modifies—NEVER.

But sometimes, it is not necessary to insert commas between a list of adjectives. Check out this sentence as an example:

Her flat, tight brown shoes made her feet and legs look pretty in a peculiar manner.

The question you are probably asking is when do I know when to insert commas and when not to?

The commas are placed between adjectives that equally modify the same noun, or adjectives of equal strength. When deciding whether to place commas or not between adjectives, ask yourself:

If I reversed the order of the adjectives, would the meaning change? If I placed ‘and’ between them, would that alter the meaning or make it sound awkward?

If your answer to these questions is no, then you can safely put a comma between them.

For example:

Her thick black hair extended all the way to her shoulders.

Question is: should I place a comma between the two adjectives thick and black?

When we say thick black hair, we are saying that of the type of hair that is black, the one we are considering is thick.

But when we say black thick hair , we are suggesting that of the type of hair that is thick, the one we are considering is black.

Do you see how the meaning changes when we reverse the adjectives? And if we place ‘and’ between them, what happens?

… her thick and black hair …

In this case, we are not describing the type of hair, but we are simply stating that her hair is both thick and black.

Considering all this, we should not put a comma between the adjectives, because they are definitely not of equal strength.

Now consider the following sentence:

Her strong, healthy hair extended all the way to her shoulders

If we reverse the order, or place and between them, the meaning will still be the same:

Her healthy, strong hair….

Her strong and healthy hair…

Before and(or) after non-defining relative clauses

A clause is a group of words that contain both a subject (doer of action) and a verb (the action being done). A relative clause, unlike an independent one, cannot stand on it’s own in a sentence. Study the sentence below:

Malcolm beat the girl because she teased him.

The words in bold are a relative clause: …because she teased him. On their own, these words would not make sense. However, the independent clause Malcolm beat the girl can stand on its own and still make perfect sense. A relative clause is also known as a weak clause, and an independent clause is also referred to as a strong clause.

A non-defining relative clause is one that only adds extra information about the subject or object, but can safely be removed from the sentence and it would still make sense. These should be set off with commas.

Malcolm, who is my next door neighbour, beat the girl because she teased him.

Defining relative clauses, phrases and words that add necessary information about the subject or object under consideration and are necessary for the sentence to make sense and should NEVER be set off by commas. I repeat: NEVER!

Malcolm entered the crowded girl’s dormitory in a fury and beat the girl who teased him.

If we drop off the important phrase: …who teased him the question that will keep looming over our heads is: which girl? This is because obviously there are many girls in the dormitory.

Important: if a defining clause is introduced by that, NEVER place a comma before that.

The girl that was beaten up by Malcolm burst into tears.

The girl, who was beaten up by Malcolm, burst into tears.

The girl, that was beaten up by Malcolm, burst into tears.

Sometimes, what adds extra defining information may even a single word:

The girl, Mary, who was beaten up by Malcolm, burst into tears.

Such words, phrases that further identify the noun that comes before them are collectively known as appositives.

After introductory words and phrases

If a phrase introduces a sentence, place a comma after it.

Remember, a phrase is a group of words that does not contain both a subject and its verb.

Feeling angry, Luis walked away with his fists tightly clenched.

Having greeted him, she sat down.

And if the phrase is short i.e. of three words or less, the comma may be omitted altogether.

Last week, I went to Lusaka. or Last week I went to Lusaka.

But be sure to use your discretion, because some sentences may sound awkward without the comma after the introductory phrase:

While eating Mary reads ‘The Adventures of Luis Jones.’

This can give the impression that some unspecified person eats Mary while reading. More appropriately, insert a comma after the introductory phrase:

While eating, Mary reads ‘The Adventures of Luis Jones.’

Commas are also placed after mild interjections or transitional words at the beginning of sentences. Interjections are words, phrases or sounds that express strong emotion such as surprise or pain. Interjections may also refer to interrupting words or phrases that occur abruptly in the middle of a sentence. Transitional words are words that connect the thought expressed in the previous sentence with the new one being expressed in the current one.

Gee, I forgot.

The above sentence shows the use of a mild interjection. A strong one is more appropriately proceeded by an exclamation mark:

Damn! All my money is gone!

The sentence below shows transitional words being set off by commas.

Indeed, he must be fired.

Truly, we need God’s help.

When two independent clauses occur in the same sentence

When two independent clauses (defined above) occur in the same sentence, they should be separated by a comma:

Nandi detests mangoes, but she loves eating guavas.

There are two independent clauses in this sentence: i.e. Nandi detests mangoes and she loves eating guavas. The word but is a coordinate conjunction and a comma should be placed before it. The coordinate conjunctions in question are: and, for, but, yet, nor, or, so…

However, if one of the clauses has a comma in it, a semicolon should be placed before it:

Nandi, the only girl in my class, detests mangoes; but she loves eating guavas.

And obviously, now you will understand why I put semicolons in the sentence below. It has about two independent clauses, and hence one coordinate conjunction. I have placed a semicolon before the coordinate conjunction because the clauses already contain commas.

Yes indeed, she was hedged-in, that girl; and from the very beginning I knew that her heart was too cramped up for room to accommodate me, because she was that girl I could never have.

If, however, the clauses are both short, you may choose to omit the comma:

Nandi cooks but I bake.

If a sentence begins with a relative clause

When a sentence starts with a relative clause, place a comma after the weak clause:

If Mary had known, she would not have married him.

However, if the sentence starts with a strong clause, do not insert a comma:

Mary would not have married him had she known.

In a list of items

In a list of items, place a comma between each item. Before the last item, place a conjunction instead of a comma, and place a comma before the conjunction:

She loves apples, pears, pineapples, and bananas.

Peter washed his hands, sat at the table, said a little prayer, and began to eat

At first I was a little puzzled when I learnt that a comma should precede the conjunction, because we had learn that it is not necessary to include it:

When you come to the pitch, bring the bat, baseball and the net

However, it is necessary to include it because sometimes the last two items may seem to blend together:

Trevor loves eating chicken, fish and chips.

The above sentence implies that Trevor loves eating the combination of fish and chips, while the one below shows that he loves eating these separately:

Trevor loves eating chicken, fish, and chips.

To avoid such problems, always use the comma before the conjunction.

If any of the items in the list has a comma, use semicolons to separate the items:

There are three smart guys in my class: Charles, the one with freckles; Lloyd, the president of the science club; and Trevor, the librarian.

If a compound noun is among those in the list, do not place a comma within it:

Trevor’s favourite dishes are fish and chips, macaroni and cheese, and lobster.

Remember too to insert the comma after etc.:

When you are writing a story, you need a pen, some paper, a dictionary, etc., to write effectively.

Sometimes, words are used to introduce a list. In such cases, they should be set off by a commas. In some cases, it may be preferable to place a semicolon before these introductory words.

There are certain things that make life worth living; for example, friendship, the beauty of nature and the great variety of things to occupy oneself with.

When you go hunting, you should carry suitable tools, namely, a gun, a bow and arrows, or a spear.

When a Person is directly Addressed

Place a comma before the name of the person directly addressed and if appropriate, after it:

Come here, Nancy, and help me out.

There is no more money in my account, Mr. Jones.

I don’t know what you are talking about, Teacher (The title should be capitalized because you are directly addressing someone).

With Interrupting Words and Phrases

Sometimes, the flow of a sentence is interrupted by words and phrases. In such cases, such phrases or words should be set off by commas.

Life, I believe, is wonderful.

The fireman, unfortunately, perished in the inferno.

Since commas represent only a brief pause, it is better to use parenthesis or em dashes if the interruption is considerably long.

Trust me, you need to trust someone, and I will help you.

It is better to rewrite this as:

Trust me—you need to trust someone—and I will help you


Trust me (you need to trust someone) and I will help you

After Parenthetical Phrases

The comma should be placed after the closing parenthesis:

After the assassination of the Governor (he was a very charming man), the country went into chaos.

After Quotation Marks

Like other punctuation marks, the comma should be placed inside the closing quotation mark.

"Get out of here,” Mr. Jones said.

“Get out of here”, Mr. Jones said.

It is also used to interrupt quotations, and also to introduce quotations.

The man said, “Where is my wife?”

”Take him away,” the police man said, “he deserves to rot in jell.”

When a Date is written in Full

Separate each part of the date with a comma:

On the 24th October, 1964, Zambia got independent.

However, if any part of the date is omitted, the comma should be left out:

Zambia got its independence in October 1964.

Zambia got its independence in October, 1964.

In Question Tags

A question tag should always be preceded with a comma.

You are sick, aren’t you?

The Children have arrived, haven’t they?

Geographical names and Addresses

Geographical names and addresses should be set off by commas.

I live in Kitwe, Zambia.

1 Lantana avenue, Newtown, Launshya, used to be my residence (street number and name should not be set off by commas).

Titles in name

Titles in names should be set off with commas.

My friend, Annie, PHD, will be addressing us tonight.

An exception if for such titles as Jr, Sr, II, III, etc. These should not be set off by commas.

Charles Clooney, MD, was a great admirer of Sr. Francis VII.

To set off a Major Shift in Thought, Contrasting Elements in sentences or Distinct Pauses

Contrasting parts of a sentence should be set off with commas: Tom loves Emma, not Mary.

Major pauses and a shift in thought should be represented with commas.

Mary was very glad, almost hysterical.

I am pretty certain these few tips have helped you as much as they have helped me. And I am sure that now Mr. Comma is much less of a problem, isn’t he? Perfect!

Please stick around because all your grammar horrors will soon be over!

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