Commas : to separate clauses 

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

A complex sentence is one that consists of a main clause and at least one subordinate clause. When writing complex sentences, commas are used to separate clauses.


Being alone in the house, Sally was feeling afraid. 
I first tried tapas in Spain, whilst l was on holiday.

In the sentences above, the intended meaning would remain if the subordinate clauses were to be removed.

Though this level of information is probably sufficient in the primary classroom, it is worth noting that there are different types of subordinate clauses. Some of these clauses do not require commas to separate them from the main clause…

A subordinate clause that begins with ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘which’, ‘where’ or ‘that’ is known as a relative clause. A relative clause may be a restrictive relative clause or a non-restrictive relative clause.


Here is an example of a restrictive relative clause.

People who have ticket numbers between l and 50 may come to the front of the queue. 

A restrictive relative clause contains information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In the example, if you take out the clause ‘who have ticket numbers between 1 and 50’ then the whole point of the sentence is negated. This is a restrictive relative clause.

A restrictive relative clause should not have commas placed round it.

Here is an example of a non-restrictive relative clause:

Simon, who was simply not tall enough, could not ride on the roller coaster. 

In this example the clause ‘who was simply not tall enough’ is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it were to be removed,  it would not significantly alter the meaning of the sentence. This is similar to the way in which commas are used like brackets in a previous section.

As a rule of thumb, if you can’t miss out the clause then you can leave out the commas…

Commas : in direct speech

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

On occasions when a writer quotes the exact words that have been spoken we say that ‘direct speech’ has been used. Often, Information about who is speaking comes just before the direct speech.

When this happens a comma is used to indicate that the narrative is about to give way to the direct speech.

Jane said, “Hello.”

Note that the initial comma comes before the opening quotation mark and the full stop at the end of the quotation comes before the closing quotation mark. It is a pretty good rule of thumb that any punctuation associated with quotation marks are usually to the left of the inverted commas as you look at them on the page.

If the piece of direct speech comes before any information about who is speaking, then a comma is placed  inside the quotation marks.

“You must be joking,” remarked George.
“Have a drink,” he said.

Again, the ‘punctuation to the left’ rule of thumb works.

If the direct speech is in the form of a question or an exclamation, then instead of a comma, a question mark or an exclamation mark is used.

“Go away!” she screamed.
“Do you have any change?” asked the bus conductor.

Often, a piece of direct speech is broken up by the information about who is speaking. In this case, a comma ends the first section of direct speech and is inserted before the second section of direct speech begins.

Note that our rule about keeping punctuation to the left of quotation marks still works here too …

“Don’t do that,” said dad, “you’ll get hurt.”
“Go quickly,” she said, “it will soon be dark.”

Commas : as brackets (parentheses) 

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

Commas can be used like brackets – to separate off a part of the sentence that is an ‘aside’ or comment and not really part of the main thrust of the sentence…

When in Spain, naturally, I enjoy the local cuisine.
Money, of course, does not grow on trees.

In these examples, the commas work in a similar way to those that are put round non-restrctive relative clauses (scary stuff!), which is simply to say that they separate off information that is not essential to the overall meaning of the sentences.

However there are occasions when the use of commas changes or clarifies what the writer intended, for example:

My brother, John, is a professional footballer.

The writer’s use of commas suggests that he only has one brother. The fact that this brother’s name is John is offered as an aside, a little extra,unnecessary information.

In the end the meaning of the sentence is not altered by the addition of the extra fact…

My brother is a professional footballer.

…conveys the same meaning.

However, if the sentence is written without the commas its meaning is somewhat different…

My brother John is a professional footballer.

The lack of commas suggests that the writer has more than one brother and that the one that is the professional footballer is John. Because ‘John’ is integral to the meaning, no commas are needed.

So, if you are unsure about whether or not you need these types of commas then try replacing them with a pair of brackets or just leaving out the information that is between them.

If the meaning of the sentence remains the same then the information inside the commas is an aside so you can keep the commas; if the meaning of the sentence changes then maybe no brackets or commas were needed…

Commas : in lists… 

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

When a sentence contains a list of items, it is usual to put a comma after each item in the list except for between the last two items – this place usually has the word ‘and’.

I went to the zoo yesterday where I saw lions, tigers, monkeys, zebras and snakes.
My favourite tea is sausage, egg, chips and beans.

Sometimes it is better to put a comma before the ‘and’ in a list of items. This is particularly true when there might be some confusion about the meaning.

For instance in this sentence:

My favourite sandwiches are cheese, ham, salad and bacon and egg.

It might be unclear whether the writer likes his bacon and egg in the same sandwich or in separate sandwiches. By putting in a comma after the penultimate item, it becomes dear that the writer intends ‘bacon and egg’ to be a single sandwich, thus:

My favourite sandwiches cheese, ham, salad, and bacon and egg.

The final comma in these lists, before the word ‘and’, is called the ‘serial comma’.

Not every writer uses a comma in this position; it is optional. It is also known as the ‘Oxford’ Comma because Oxford dictionaries always use it.


We can also, of course, use lists of adjectives to describe a noun; when we do this, the adjectives are separated by commas. The commas go between the adjectives. Note there is no comma between the last adjective in the list and the noun that follows it.

Red Riding Hood was afraid of the big, bad, ugly, snarling wolf.

More about adjectives here… Adjectives Overview

 

Commas : General usage…

Commas are used to insert a small break between different parts of a sentence. Commas help to make the meaning of a sentence clearer.

For more about commas see our Punctuation Overview page.

Many peope do not understand where and how to use commas and so Hey often crop up in the strangest places.

The main places where commas are used are as follows;

in lists
as parentheses (brackets)
in direct speech
to separate clauses

In the sections that follow on from here we shall look at each ot these in turn and give examples for each…