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When to use them

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is all about.
You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who
are not like you admit to being useless and
inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I
yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever
when we're apart. I can be forever happy--will
you let me be yours?
What happens to the letter if there were some
punctuation mistakes and it was punctuated in
an entirely different fashion?

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you
are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are
not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior.
You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For
you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're
apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Which letter do you think John would prefer to

A professor wrote the following sentence on

the board and asked his class to punctuate
Woman without her man is nothing.

Half of the class punctuated the sentence in

the following way:
Woman: without her, man is nothing.
The other half of the class responded with the
Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Students often place commas throughout

their papers as if they are sprinkling raisins
on their oatmeal or avoid them like the
plague. Although you shouldnt use a comma
unless you know a rule for it, commas are
necessary for others to understand what we
have said, to get it.

In most situations, five general rules for comma

use will help students use commas correctly.
use a comma to separateitems in a series.
use a comma with a coordinating
conjunctionto separate two independent
use a comma to set-offnon-essential elements
such as a phrase or clause. Commas should be
placed before and after a non-essential element
in the middle of a sentence
use a comma after an opening clause, word, or
use a comma to follow conventionsof naming,
citing sources, presenting addresses, dates, etc.

Separating items in a series signals to the

reader that the items are "like" in some
respect. A series of two or more items
should be separated by commas.
Felix dislikesspinach, broccoli, green beans,
and brussels sproutsany vegetable that's
Doing the dishes, washing the clothes, and
mopping the floorare the chores I hate

Should you use a comma before the and in a

Look at this example. Do they mean the same

macaroni and cheese

macaroni, and cheese

For example:
She left herbeautiful black leatherhandbag on
the bus.
Haunted by the memory oflast year's painful
knee surgery, she protected her knee with a
strong brace during the tennis match.
A useful way to tell if items are "like" is to try
placing the word "and" between every item; if
the sentence makes sense, then the items are
like; if not, then they are unlike items and
should not be separated by commas.

Two or more independent clauses joined

together need strong punctuation: a semicolon, or a comma and a coordinating
This punctuation tells the reader that the
clause could stand on its own as a complete


Felix does not like spinach, nordoes he like

We will be going to the mountains again this
summer, butthis time we will bring
mosquito repellant.
Maya is going to travel throughout Southeast
Asia for a year, andI will be staying home
flipping burgers and going to school.

A non-essential element is information that is

added to the core of a sentence to add
further informationinformation that is
useful, but not really essential to
understanding the basic assertion.
The information is thus enclosed by commas.


She is, as you can probably tell,pretty

nervous about public speaking.
As you can probably tell,she is pretty
nervous about public speaking.
Once upon a time,before television, people
read books for fun.
Jake brought his best friends from school,
John and Alex,home with him for
Thanksgiving dinner.

In the last example, what does the names

being enclosed in commas tell us?
Consider how the meaning changes with the
presence or absence of enclosing commas in
the following sentences:
My sister Maria is pretty fun to hang out with.
My sister, Maria,is pretty fun to hang out

Introductory Clauses: When beginning a

sentence with an introductory clause (as in
this sentence), a comma is typically
necessary to signal the reader as to when the
introductory phrase or clause is complete.

As you can see,the problem is much bigger
than we imagined.
Because we have had so much rain this year,
construction of the new high school will take
an additional six months.

Watch out, however, for clauses used as the

subject of a sentence; one should never
separate a subject from the verb of the
What she has always wantedis now within
her reach.
Referring to what others have saidshows
that you are participating in an ongoing
conversation about a topic.

Introductory words: Sometimes a sentence begins

with a single word that needs to be set off from
the rest of the sentence.
mild exclamations or interjections:
Hey,I thought you were going to study tonight
instead of come with us to the movies.
Ok,then show me how you do it.
No,I don't want pineapple on my pizza.
a name in a direct address:
Miguel,do you want another cup of coffee?

a sentence adverb: these are special transition

words that always take a comma, or if they
occur in the middle of a sentence, they are
enclosed by commas.
Examples of sentence adverbs include moreover,
however, nevertheless, furthermore, frankly,
sadly, and mercifully.
Never use a sentence adverb to connect two
independent clauses unless you use a semicolon before the sentence adverb.
I would love a new plasma television;however,I
cannot afford one.
Sadly,she has the flu and will have to skip the

. . . Use a comma to separate a city from a state, and

after the state before continuing with the rest of the
I have lived in San Francisco, California, for most of my
. . . Use a comma to separate the day of the month
from the year, and after the year before continuing with
the sentence:
The twins were born in June, 1979, one month before my
30th birthday.
. . . Use commas to surround titles or degrees:
Professor Pete McSeed, Ph.D., received his doctoral from
Amherst College a year before taking a teaching job at

. . . Commas used with quotations are a bit tricky. When introducing

a quote with a short introductory phrase like "He said," "Twain
argues," or "As Huck puts it," the phrase should be set off from the
quote by a comma. However, after an independent clause, a colon
should be used instead.

It is also important to note that a comma used after

a quote to separate it from the rest of the sentence
goes inside the closing quote.
. . . Use a comma to emphasize a shift or to cause
the reader to pause before an important contrast or
point of emphasis.

Here are some quick "don'ts" that may help you break any bad habits with comma
Don'tuse a comma to separate the subject from the verb.
wrong: To err, is human.
corrected: To err is human.
Don'tplace a comma between two sentence verbs or verb phrases.
wrong: She walked out of the room, and started screaming about the grade on
her essay.
corrected: She walked out of the room and started screaming about the grade
on her essay.
Don'tplace a comma between two nouns, noun phrases, or noun clauses in a
compound subject or compound object.
wrong:I told my boss that I was sick, and that I would not be coming to work.
corrected:I told my boss that I was sick and that I would not be coming to work.
Don'tput a comma after the main clause when a dependent clause follows it.
wrong: I am not going to work today, because I am sick.
corrected: I am not going to work today because I am sick.

Don'tsprinkle commas throughout your

writing to try and imitate a speaking
voice. Rely instead on language and logic,
and an occasional well-placed comma to
create voice.
I, love, the comma, hate, comma abuse,
hate, the people, who hate comma abuse,
and hate, the people, who, love comma
abuse, the perpetrators, the people, who,
love them, the people, who, hate, them,
and the, fandoms, which spawn them.