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Using Commas

Commas indicate a small separation, semi-colons are a medium separation and periods are a large separation. Commas help people know how words are grouped together and connected or not connected.

Grammar is complicated and frequently has exceptions. These tips will help you use commas correctly most of the time, but they're not exact or complete.

This article assumes you already understand clauses, phrases and parts of speech (including coordinating and subordinating conjunctions). I explain those, and more, in English Language, Analysis & Grammar.

Commas Between Clauses

Commas are sometimes used to separate clauses which are joined with a conjunction. To join two clauses with no conjunction, use a semi-colon. There are four common patterns:

Usually put a comma before a coordinating conjunction which joines two clauses:

Commas can be tricky for some people, but reading a guide can help people who are interested in learning.

But coordinate clauses don't need a comma if they're simple enough:

I like cats and I like dogs.

You don't usually use a comma for a subordinating conjunction:

I want soup because it's warm.

But when the subordinate clause is before the main clause, then you need a comma between clauses:

If you want to stay warm, bring a jacket.

Commas are common when words aren't in the standard order.

Commas Between Phrases

Don't use a comma for a coordinating conjunction joining two phrases. Example:

I like cats and dogs.

Here "and" joins the noun-phrases "cats" and "dogs". There aren't two clauses, so don't use a comma.

Commas are used for lists of phrases. A list means three or more phrases in a row of the same type, like this:

I like cats, dogs, mice [optional comma] and birds.

As a general rule of thumb, leave out unnecessary things when writing. But another rule of thumb is to be clear and avoid anything confusing. So if the optional comma helps prevent confusion, it's good, but otherwise it's bad. The optional comma generally helps when list items are long or contain conjunctions like "and" or "or".

With lists, you can see it like putting a comma where you leave out an "and". It's like you shortened "I like cats and dogs and mice and birds".

Adjectives (and adverbs) can be treated like a list, even if there are only two and there's no conjunction. For example:

I bought a big, expensive car.

This basically means "big and expensive car".

Don't use commas where you couldn't say "and". E.g.:

I bought a red sports car.

You wouldn't say "a red and sports car". That's wrong, so there's no comma here. You can also consider if changing the order works: you can say "an expensive, big car" (it's just a little awkward) but you can't say "a sports, red car".

"Sports" is grouped more tightly with "car" than "red" is. It has a stronger connection. That means "sports" and "red" aren't peers or equals. They aren't really forming a list together because they aren't fully the same type of thing. And if they aren't part of the same list, that takes away the reason to use a comma.

Commas for Asides

Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

Commas can set aside a clause:

Monday, which is a holiday, is the only day I'm available.

Or a phrase:

Joe, on the other hand, is hillarious.

Or a single word:

In this case, however, I think he's lying.

Commas are commonly used with introductory phrases:

By the way, I like food.

This is similar to using commas in the middle of the sentence, but at the start or end of a sentence you can separate some words with only one comma. Here's a comma for a phrase at the end of a sentence:

Cars are useful, by the way.

Commas are also common with appositives (two or more noun phrases in a row):

The insect, a cockroach, crawled on my food.

Note that the words "a cockroach" could be deleted from the sentence and it'd still make sense.


Elliot Temple on February 23, 2020

Messages (23)

“which” vs “that”

> Commas are sometimes used to separate clauses which are joined with a conjunction.

The text after “which” describes the clauses to which the first part of the sentence refers, as opposed to adding optional info about clauses in general. This means that “which” should be a *restrictive modifier*. Apparently, though, in American English (though not in British English), “which” is not used as a restrictive modifier. Therefore, if the essay is written for an audience that is mainly familiar with American English, “which” should be “that”.


Alisa at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16358 | reply | quote

#16358 Yeah I intended that text to be restrictive. Clauses aren't all joined by conjunctions. E.g. they can be joined with semicolons or, in a sense, periods.

I think "which" is used both ways in America. I'm not convinced by that article which just makes an assertion.


curi at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16359 | reply | quote

More on “which” vs “that”

#16359 The Grammarly blog says:

> British and American English have different rules for [that and which]. In American English, *that* is used to introduce **restrictive clauses**, and *which* introduces **nonrestrictive clauses**... In British English, it is often acceptable to substitute *which* in restrictive clauses.

According to Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015) (retyped from Google Books):

> In AmE *which* is not generally used in restrictive clauses...

After reading the above, I formulated the rules below. I expect that following these rules will help me read and write text that is grammatically correct in *both* American and British English (at least, according to the sources cited above).

- Reading: *That* is always restrictive. *Which* is also restrictive, unless it is directly preceded by a comma, in which case it is non-restrictive.

- Writing: Whenever both *which* and *that* sound correct, check the meaning: if restrictive, use *that*; otherwise, use *which* and precede it by a comma.


Alisa at 3:02 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16360 | reply | quote

I went through the comma-focused material in Leonard Peikoff's course:

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-lecture-6-notes/

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-homework-6/

There is a lot of overlap with what Elliot says. Peikoff likes to give more names to lots of individual cases, whereas Elliot groups them into bigger overarching themes, but there is broad agreement between LP and ET as to substance.

One point of disagreement i noticed was:

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-lecture-6-notes/#Alternatives_to_Commas_for_Parenthetical_Remarks

> Peikoff says greatest emphasis to side remark is given by dashes, least by parentheses, and middle amount of emphasis is commas.

whereas ET says above:

> Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

I interpret ET as saying that commas are "weaker" in terms of setting things aside.

So LP says dashes > commas > parens, but I read ET as implying that parens > commas.

I found something online which says:

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/dashes-parentheses-and-commas

> In general, you can think of parentheses, commas, and dashes as a continuum of marks. Parentheses are the quiet whisper of an aside, commas are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk, and dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray.


Justin Mallone at 4:26 AM on October 12, 2020 | #18299 | reply | quote

there's no disagreement here re comma vs. paren. you should think it through more.


curi at 11:13 AM on October 12, 2020 | #18300 | reply | quote

I actually thought about whether I was making some error before I posted my initial comment, and I reflected on it a bit, but I couldn't quite see an error, so I sent it anyways. I could have perhaps labeled the part about the disagreement as low confidence or something. I have been trying that sort of thing on my blog some (labels for low confidence) but it's still not something I've internalized to the point where it automatically comes to mind.

I thought about the issue some more, and wrote something about it, but I didn't find what I wrote particularly helpful or illuminating (was worth trying anyways. Writing stuff down often helps and makes stuff clearer).


Justin Mallone at 1:43 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18301 | reply | quote

The first step would be to write the (claimed) contradiction clearly using full sentences. You haven't written any clear version of your claim.


curi at 1:56 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18302 | reply | quote

I was getting stuck trying to formulate the (alleged) issue clearly. To get unstuck, I tried relistening to some relevant Peikoff audio to get unstuck. I think this was helpful. Here's a bit I transcribed from Lecture 6. Peikoff:

> So the norm is commas. The big emphasis is dashes. The other direction, the least emphasis is parentheses.


> [Speaking of parentheses] Now those marks, those two round marks, tell the reader in effect, this idea is very very loosely connected to what I'm saying. It's really off the point, it's barely connected, just enough to make it into the sentence.

So according to LP, parentheses have the least emphasis and most strongly indicate that the comment is tangential to the rest of what the sentence is talking about.

I think I read this ET quote:

> Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

... as speaking to some attribute of parentheses other than the degree to which they indicate something is a tangent or side comment.

Earlier I said:

> I interpret ET as saying that commas are "weaker" in terms of setting things aside.

But what does "in terms of setting things aside" actually mean?

Setting things aside grammatically - as in, separating some section from the core grammar of the sentence?

Setting things aside as being tangents?

Setting things aside as particularly important?

"in terms of setting things aside" is quite vague, and I think I was confused about what I exactly meant, and had 2 or maybe even 3 things in mind at the same time, and so that was a huge mess. So I think that particular conceptual vagueness was the primary cause of my error.

If I read the part of your quote regarding commas being "a weaker or milder version of parentheses" as indicating that commas are weaker than parentheses *in terms of indicating that something is a tangent/side-issue*, then your quote and what Peikoff says above are totally compatible.

I initially brought up LP talking about the relative emphasis indicated by different marks. But the amount of emphasis or weight that some punctuation marks indicate is a *different attribute* than the degree to which punctuation marks indicate that something is a tangent. I think not separating out the different attributes of things is part of where I was getting lost.

I withdraw my claim that there is a contradiction here. Thanks for your help.


Anonymous at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18304 | reply | quote

I wrote:

> Article from December, 2020, showing how ...

There should not be a comma between "December" and "2020", according the Extended Rules for Using Commas article at Purdue's Online Writing Lab:

> When you use just the month and the year, no comma is necessary after the month or year: "The average temperatures for July 1998 are the highest on record for that month."

I've read that before, but I have trouble remembering it.


Alisa at 8:36 AM on December 9, 2020 | #19114 | reply | quote

https://www.elliottemple.com/essays/lying :

> People commonly assume that lying is a simple topic and that they understand it, but actually confusions are common.

I was trying to figure out if there should be a comma after "actually". If "actually" functions as an adverb (modifying "are"), then there should be no comma. In that case, the final clause would mean the same thing as "confusions are actually common". If "actually" functions as an introductory phrase, then it *should* be followed by a comma, according to OWL's 2nd rule of comma usage (emphasis in original):

> 2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

> a. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while.

> **While** I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.

> **Because** her alarm clock was broken, she was late for class.

> **If** you are ill, you ought to see a doctor.

> **When** the snow stops falling, we'll shovel the driveway.

> c. Common introductory words that should be followed by a comma include *yes*, *however*, *well*.

> **Well**, perhaps he meant no harm.

> **Yes**, the package should arrive tomorrow morning.

> **However**, you may not be satisfied with the results.

The OWL comma rules don't have an example with "actually", but it seems like the usage of "actually" in the sentence at the top of this post could be the same kind of thing as their rule 2(a) and 2(c).


Alisa at 5:16 PM on March 22, 2021 | #20242 | reply | quote

#20242 I forgot to include some emphasis in my quote of rule 2(a) from OWL's 2nd rule of comma usage. Here's the corrected version:

> a. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include *after*, *although*, *as*, *because*, *if*, *since*, *when*, *while*.


Alisa at 5:19 PM on March 22, 2021 | #20243 | reply | quote

> a. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include *after*, *although*, *as*, *because*, *if*, *since*, *when*, *while*.

those are subordinating conjunctions


Anonymous at 8:35 PM on March 22, 2021 | #20244 | reply | quote

>> People commonly assume that lying is a simple topic and that they understand it, but actually confusions are common.

I think there should be a comma after actually.

"actually* is a modifier for the whole clause "confusions are common". It shows that this clause contradicts the previous clause. It's a different meaning than saying "... but confusions are actually common", which would mean more like confusions are actually common rather than being theoretically common.

The first answer on this page applies: https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-comma-after-actually-in-a-sentence .


Anne B at 6:17 AM on March 23, 2021 | #20245 | reply | quote

#20245 I'm not yet convinced that "actually" doesn't modify "are". If it does, it seems like the implied meaning could be: although confusions are assumedly uncommon, they are *actually* common.


Alisa at 8:26 PM on March 24, 2021 | #20260 | reply | quote

> I think there should be a comma after actually.

I disagree. I think a comma there is optional but unnecessary.

> "actually* is a modifier for the whole clause "confusions are common". It shows that this clause contradicts the previous clause.

"actually" is not needed for that purpose. The "but" shows that the second clause contradicts the first.

> It's a different meaning than saying "... but confusions are actually common", which would mean more like confusions are actually common rather than being theoretically common.

"confusions are actually common" could also mean that confusions are actually *common*, as opposed to being *uncommon*.

> The first answer on this page applies: https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-comma-after-actually-in-a-sentence .

how did you pick that source? did you look at multiple sources. or did you just look for one that agreed with you? I am asking because it is easy to find sources saying the comma is unnecessary. If you didn't find any, you should consider if you were searching in a biased way.


commanon at 11:33 PM on March 24, 2021 | #20261 | reply | quote

> how did you pick that source? did you look at multiple sources. or did you just look for one that agreed with you? I am asking because it is easy to find sources saying the comma is unnecessary. If you didn't find any, you should consider if you were searching in a biased way.

This is a good point. I remember looking at 3-4 sources. But I don't think I looked at them very carefully. I didn't take seriously enough that I could be wrong.

I'll do some more research and address the grammar separately.


Anne B at 8:34 AM on March 25, 2021 | #20266 | reply | quote

>> People commonly assume that lying is a simple topic and that they understand it, but actually confusions are common.

I think that whether there’s a comma in this sentence after the “actually” is the same as whether there’s a comma in the sentence “Actually confusions are common.” because “actually confusions are common” is an independent clause.

I searched for “do you need a comma after actually”.

The Quora link has five different answers:

1. The one I posted. Shows a comma after an introductory “actually”.

2. Doesn’t address an introductory “actually”.

3. Doesn’t address an introductory “actually”.

4. Shows a comma after an introductory “actually”.

5. Doesn’t address an introductory “actually”.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2015/08/27/introduce-me-with-a-comma/

> A sentence adverb—used to express the narrator or viewpoint character’s attitude toward the sentiment conveyed by the sentence—is separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

[…]

> Because not every adverb at the beginning of a sentence is a sentence adverb, not every adverb at the beginning of a sentence requires a comma.

One of their examples of a sentence adverb:

> Regrettably, the whole affair was nothing like I expected and yet everything I feared.

Their example of an adverb at the beginning of a sentence that is not a sentence adverb:

> Suddenly she took off after the dog, but Jimmy continued his lecture.

Is “actually” a sentence adverb in “actually confusions are common”? It doesn’t really express the narrator’s attitude, so I think it is not a sentence adverb.

Further down on the page they talk about transitional words and phrases.

> Transitional words and phrases at the beginnings of sentences move us from one thought, one sentence, to the next. Many are conjunctive adverbs. Transitional words and phrases are almost always followed by commas, but there are exceptions. Let’s look at a few categories of transitional words (there are others).

> contrast—despite, on the contrary, on the other hand, still

> cause and effect—therefore, thus, so

> restatement or clarification—in other words, again

> time—now, then, later, today, tomorrow, yesterday, afterward

> example—that is, for example, specifically

> intensification—of course, indeed, in fact, undoubtedly

> While commas follow most of these transitions, you can skip the commas with single-word adverbs of time.

“actually” is a single word but it’s not an adverb of time. It’s in the “contrast” category.

> ~  Transition words such as therefore and indeed are often followed by commas, but they don’t have to be. The trend is toward a more light-handed use of commas. If meaning is clear and readers couldn’t possibly misread, consider dropping commas from single-word transitions (and even a few multiword transitions).

and later

> For many short introductory elements, you can omit the comma if the meaning is clear.

“actually” could fall in this category. It’s a single-word transition word and in this case the meaning is clear. So the comma could be skipped.

This page doesn’t use “actually” as an example. But it does use it in the course of writing:

> Actually, most of the time you can skip the comma after an opening coordinating conjunction.

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/punctuation/commas/extended_rules_for_commas.html

> 2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

[…]

> c. Common introductory words that should be followed by a comma include yes, however, well.

> Well, perhaps he meant no harm.

> Yes, the package should arrive tomorrow morning.

> However, you may not be satisfied with the results.

It doesn’t say whether “actually” is included here.

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/comma/

> Comma After Introductory Phrase

[…]

> When an adverbial phrase begins a sentence, it’s often followed by a comma but it doesn’t have to be, especially if it’s short. As a rule of thumb, if the phrase is longer than about four words, use the comma. You can also use a comma with a shorter phrase when you want to emphasize it or add a pause for literary effect.

> After the show, Cleo will be signing autographs. Behind the building there is enough space to park two limousines. Without knowing why, I crossed the room and looked out the window. In 1816 life was very different. Suddenly, an angry black cat sprang from the shadows.

They put a comma after “Suddenly” in the last sentence, but according to their rule it’s not necessary.

Big picture: Some people think it’s optional to have a comma in “actually confusions are common”, some lean towards not having it, and some think it’s necessary. After this research, I’m comfortable with the original sentence as is, and I’d also be comfortable if it had a comma after “actually”.

Lesson to me: Be more open to having my intuitions be wrong when I’m researching them.


Anne B at 4:10 PM on March 25, 2021 | #20268 | reply | quote

About a different wording than the original sentence:

>> It's a different meaning than saying "... but confusions are actually common", which would mean more like confusions are actually common rather than being theoretically common.

> "confusions are actually common" could also mean that confusions are actually *common*, as opposed to being *uncommon*.

I retract what I said. I agree with you on this now.

I’m not sure if “actually” modifies “are” or “common” in “confusions are actually common”.


Anne B at 4:11 PM on March 25, 2021 | #20269 | reply | quote

> I retract what I said. I agree with you on this now.

> I’m not sure if “actually” modifies “are” or “common” in “confusions are actually common”.


commanon at 12:29 AM on March 28, 2021 | #20277 | reply | quote

#20277 I'm not sure what you mean here.

I agree with you that

> "confusions are actually common" could also mean that confusions are actually *common*, as opposed to being *uncommon*.

but I don't know which word "actually" modifies.


Anne B at 2:09 AM on March 28, 2021 | #20278 | reply | quote

#20277 was sent in error. I started a message but didn't finish it. my computer glitched and sent it.

From #20269:

> I retract what I said. I agree with you on this now.

> I’m not sure if “actually” modifies “are” or “common” in “confusions are actually common”.

initially, you had taken an ambiguous clause and interpreted it as being unambiguous: you seemed to think it had only one possible interpretation, when really it could be interpreted in more than one way.

I think you should take note of this, and look for if you do this anywhere else. I think it might be causing you other difficulties with FI. if you are interpreting things in one way, and believe they unambiguously mean what you interpret them to mean, that could explain some of your difficulties.

you have interpreted things in negative ways before (e.g., as Elliot pressuring you), or you have interpreted things wrong (e.g., what kinds of activities are being suggested), and haven't searched for alternative explanations or interpretations. if you are in the habit of thinking that your interpretations are clearly right and the statements you are interpreting are unambiguous, that could be one of the issues.


commanon at 12:24 PM on March 28, 2021 | #20283 | reply | quote

https://www.elliottemple.com/essays/lying :

> That’s incorrect, and typically a dishonest belief.

I'm trying to figure out if that comma is correct.

I'll look at the OWL rules for commas. The first one is:

> 1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

"typically a dishonest belief" isn't an independent clause. It has no subject. So rule 1 doesn't apply.

If the sentence were written as follows, its use of commas would be correct according to OWL rule 1 (see above): *That’s incorrect, and it's typically a dishonest belief.*

How about rule 13?

> 13. Don't put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate.

> INCORRECT: We laid out our music and snacks, and began to study.

> INCORRECT: I turned the corner, and ran smack into a patrol car.

According to https://www.k12reader.com/term/compound-predicate :

> A compound predicate is two or more verbs or verb phrases that share the same subject and are joined by a conjunction.

There aren't two or more verbs or verb phrases in the sentence I quoted at the top. There's only one verb: "is". So this rule doesn't apply.

Let's see if rule 7 applies:

> 7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

> He was merely ignorant, not stupid.

> The chimpanzee seemed reflective, almost human.

> You're one of the senator's close friends, aren't you?

> The speaker seemed innocent, even gullible.

The comma in the sentence I quoted at the top is closer to the beginning of the sentence than the end, but "near" is somewhat ambiguous, so maybe it still counts as being near the end of the sentence. Maybe the comma there is meant to indicate a pause or shift. This rule seems like an OK fit.


Alisa at 5:52 PM on March 28, 2021 | #20285 | reply | quote

#20283

> initially, you had taken an ambiguous clause and interpreted it as being unambiguous: you seemed to think it had only one possible interpretation, when really it could be interpreted in more than one way.

>

> I think you should take note of this, and look for if you do this anywhere else. I think it might be causing you other difficulties with FI. if you are interpreting things in one way, and believe they unambiguously mean what you interpret them to mean, that could explain some of your difficulties.

Thank you! That's helpful.


Anne B at 6:33 AM on March 30, 2021 | #20304 | reply | quote

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