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According to the Chicago Manual of Style: "The comma, aside from its technical uses in mathematical, bibliographical, and other contexts, indicates the smallest break in sentence structure. It denotes a slight pause. Effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view."

According to The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage: "The comma, along with the apostrophe, is probably one of the most misused and controversial marks of punctuation. Many of us were taught that commas should reflect the pauses we make in speaking, but this approach leads to text littered with disruptive and unnecessary commas."

Here at The Petulant Poetess, we expect our authors to follow certain rules of punctuation. We extensively research American English and British English rules. Because we are a moderated site, meaning that we ask authors to make changes, we need to have some basis to work from, and we try to be as fair as possible.

#1 Comma Use with Conjunctions

  • a) In compound sentences, a comma is used between the independent clauses--clauses that are complete sentences--that are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, and sometimes so). However, if the clauses are short, the comma may be dropped.

    • He paused to take a breath, and she jumped at the chance to get in her two cents.
    • Everyone present was startled by the news, and one man fainted.
    • She opened the door and he left.
    • She took one last look over her shoulder and she jumped.
  • b) Commas are not normally used to separate the parts of a compound predicate.

    In this specific example, an example which occurs often in writing, take note that without the prepositional phrase and modifier, it reads very simply. Therefore, a comma is not needed in this instance. However (there always is an exception), there are very few instances where a comma may be needed to avoid misreading or--occasionally--to show a pause.

    • He knocked on the door and waited patiently.  (He knocked and waited.)
    • "I can't believe you're breaking up with me!" she yelled and collapsed in tears.
  • c) A comma is used in contrasting expressions, even though the two clauses (phrases) may not be independent clauses (complete sentences). However (I bet you knew that was coming), a comma usually doesn't separate phrases that are contrasted through the use of correlative conjunctions, such as: either ... or, neither ... nor, not only ... but also.

    • She had been hurt by his words, but kept a smile on her face.
    • The story will take one month to write, not one week.
    • Neither my admin nor I noticed the error.
  • d) The comma by itself is not strong enough to separate two independent clauses (complete sentences); a conjunction, a semicolon, or a period is needed.

    • Wrong: He looked down the hallway, it was very dark.
    • Right: He looked down the hallway; it was very dark.
    • Wrong: "Don't worry, Sam, it's going to be okay."
    • Right: "Don't worry, Sam. It's going to be okay."
  • e) If an introductory phrase, interjection (well, yes, etc.), adverbial modifier (then, suddenly, finally, etc.) or an adverbial phrase follows a conjunction that is used to connect two complete sentences, then a comma is placed before the conjunction but not after it.

    • Wrong: The Cannons were leading the game at the end of the first half but, of course, they always do well at first.
    • Right: The Cannons were leading the game at the end of the first half, but of course, they always do well at first.
    • Wrong: The Wasps spent much of the season at the bottom of the league and, even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year.
    • Right: The Wasps spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, and even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year.

#2 Comma Use in a Series

  • This is one area where some people prefer to place a series comma before the conjunction, while others prefer not to. Because of this, as long as you are consistent, we will accept either way. In other words, if you use a series comma before the conjunction in one sentence, and later in the story you do not, we will ask you to make a correction.

    • He was worn, beaten, and tired.
    • He was worn, beaten and tired.

#3 Comma Use between Adjectives

  • When two or more adjectives are used to describe the same noun, a comma is used to separate them.

    • His dark, lank hair hung in front of his face.
    • He jumped off the edge into the crisp, blue waves.

#4 Comma Use with Quotation Marks and in Dialogue

  • a) A commas is placed inside the closing quotation marks. When single and double quotation marks are used, the comma is placed inside both marks. When there are both single and double quotation marks, the comma is placed inside both marks. (This differs in British English. In this case, the comma goes outside the single quote, but inside the double quote.)

    • "Go away," he said.
    • He couldn't believe she called him 'beautiful,' but he supposed it was a compliment.
    • (British) He couldn't believe she called him 'beautiful', but he supposed it was a compliment.
  • b) When short or fragmentary quotations are used in a sentence that is not primary dialogue, they are usually not set off by commas.

    • They worked on the "dreaded potion" the professor had assigned.

#5 Comma Use with Direct Address

  • When a person is being spoken to in dialogue, their name is set off by commas.

    • "Don't laugh, Ron. It's not funny," she scolded.
    • "You can laugh, Anna, but it's not funny," he said.

#6 Comma Use with Introductory Words, Phrases, and Clauses

  • a) A comma should follow an introductory dependent clause (or an introductory clause introduced by an adverb).

    • As the tables filled with food, the students dug in.
    • Also, don't forget he's a Slytherin.
    • Then, he followed the trail to the caves.
  • b) A comma should follow an introductory verbal phrase (beginning with a to form of the verb, an -ing form, or an -ed form). However, if the introductory phrase is followed by a verb, no comma is needed.

    • Remembering his last harsh words to her, she steeled herself for more.
    • Excited by the possibilities, he picked her up and kissed her soundly.
    • To watch her face in the throes of ecstasy was divine.
  • c) When an introductory phrase ends in a verb or preposition, a comma is usually needed for clarification.

    • Soon after, he rose and addressed the students.
    • While eating, the students talked amongst themselves.
  • d) A comma is NOT needed when an introductory phrase indicates time or place.

    • On July 4 there are always fireworks.
    • In 30 minutes we are leaving for the train.
  • f) A comma should follow an introductory dependent clause (an adverbial clause). If the dependent clause is at the end of the sentence, the comma is not needed. In the case of either, then, as well, also or too, a comma is optional as means of clarification or as a pause.

    • Afterwards, will you join us? or Will you join us afterwards?
    • Suddenly, he did not feel like eating. or He did not feel like eating suddenly.
      but (comma optional)
    • Can I go to the store, too? or Can I go to the store too?
    • I would like to go, then. or I would like to go then.
  • g) Certain adverbs should not have commas following them unless you intend the adverb to serve as commentary as the entire phrase. Note that the first example serves as a confirmation, and so a comma is used. In the second example, the adverb serves as a comment. Be sure to read your sentence and pick whichever you feel fits what you are trying to get across.

    • Of course, she was lying.
    • Of course she was lying.

#7a "Oh" and "Ah"

  • A comma follows Oh and Ah if it introduces a sentence.

    • Oh, what a beautiful morning!
    • Ah, I see what you mean.
    A comma follows an exclamatory Oh or Ah if a slight pause is intended or if it precedes a name (see #5 Direct Address).

    • Oh, never mind!
    • Oh, Ron, would you come here?
    • Oh, God, this can't be happening!
    • Oh, gods, is it really true?
    A comma is not needed after an exclamatory Oh or Ah unless a slight pause is intended.

    • Oh no!
    • Oh God!
    • Ah yes!
    • Oh mighty king!

    Note: It does say exclamatory, so you would still place commas otherwise.

    • Oh, well.
    • Oh, yes. I do indeed think so.
    • Oh, no. Tell me that I didn't just fail that exam.

#7b "Yes," "No," "Well," and the like

  • A comma usually follows Yes, No, Well and the like at the beginning of a sentence.

    • Yes, I must agree with you.
    • No, I do not want to go to Hogsmeade with you this weekend!
    • Well, I suppose that would be all right.
    • Well then, if that's the way you feel about it....
  • However, there are always exceptions to the rule!

    • No no no! I won't do it!

    And, of course, if you want to really get into it...

    • Oh yes! Please, do that again! Yes yes yes! Oh gods, yes!

#8 Comma Use with Appositional Names

  • a) Nonrestrictive appositives should be surrounded by commas. In this case, it is assumed Janet can only have one husband; therefore, her husband's name is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

    • Janet's husband, Sam, just returned from China.
  • b) In this example, the writer has only one sister, so commas would be placed around her name.

    • My sister, Margaret, plans to attend Wellesley this fall.
  • c) In this example, the writer has more than one sister. The sister's name becomes restrictive, meaning that it is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and no commas are used.

    • My sister Jenny dropped out of school.
  • d) No commas are used if the appositive is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In this case, the title of the book is necessary or we would not know what book was being talked about.

    • The book Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince was read around the world.

#9 Comma Use with Parenthetical Words, Phrases, and Clauses

  • Parentheticals are sometimes called interrupters or interjections. Common interrupters are however, moreover, and therefore. Parenthetical information should be set off by commas, although dashes can sometimes used.

    • I left the party at eight o'clock. My brother, however, chose to stay.
    • He brushed his teeth, something he did religiously every morning, and then left to go down to breakfast.

#10 Comma Use with Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

  • Commas are not used with restrictive clauses (restrictive = necessary to the meaning of the sentence). Sometimes, it is difficult for a reader to tell whether or not information is necessary.

    • Restrictive: All readers who loved Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire will enjoy the new movie.
      (This restricts the meaning to only those readers who loved Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.)
    • Nonrestrictive: All Harry Potter fans, who read the last book, should enjoy the new movie.
      (This says that all Harry Potter fans should enjoy the new movie. The clause who read the last book is additional information.)

#11 Essential vs. Nonessential Clauses

  • a) You do not use commas with essential clauses. Essential means that it is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. Some examples of clauses and introductory words that are always essential are:

    • As...as : She worked as quickly as she could.
    • Because: The professor quit because he found another job.
    • That: The broom that he wanted was too expensive.
    • Unless: He will give us detention unless we brew the potion properly.
    • Until: He will wait to panic until he sees his grades.
  • b) Nonessential clauses must be used with commas. Some examples of clauses and introductory words that are always nonessential are:

    • Although, even though, though: We thought Gryffindor was going to win the match, even though most people bet on Slytherin.
    • For: He practiced hard, for he really wanted to win.
    • Which: The new potion, which made my skin turn green, healed me immediately.
  • c) All other clauses can be essential or nonessential, depending upon the meaning of the sentence.

#12 Commas before adverbial clauses

  • Do not use a comma before adverbial clauses.

    • This includes phrases beginning with as, before, since, unless, until, while, when, where, etc.
    • The three subordinating conjunctions of concession--although, even though, and though--are exceptions to this rule. Abverb clauses beginning with these words are always set off with commas.

      • Example: I finished my popcorn before the movie started.
      • Example: We found broken glass where the accident occured.

#13 That sneaky word 'AS'

    When to use a comma before the word AS when it introduces a phrase in the middle or end of a sentence:

    Use a comma:

    • If as is used as an adverb of concession (although, even though, though).

        Example: She tried to stay awake, as she was very tired.

    • If the phrase beginning with as explains a situation.

        Example: The report was important, as it was half of her grade.
        Example: The broom could not fly, as it was broken.

    • If as is used as an adverb of manner (as if, as though), a comma may sometimes be used.

        Example: They talked about us as if we were not even there.
        Example: I failed the exam, as though I had never studied.

    Do NOT use a comma:

    • If as is used as an adverb of cause (because, since, inasmuch, so that).

        Example: I watched the game from the sidelines, and no one noticed me as they were all watching Harry try to catch the Snitch.

    • If as is used as an adverb of condition (if, on condition that, provided that, unless).

        Example: I will go to Hogsmeade with you as we won't be going to Madam Puddifoot's.

    • If as is used as a simple preposition in lieu of like.

        Example: He looked thin and gaunt as his father had looked years ago.

    • If as is used to show simultaneous action.

        Example: It hailed as I walked to school.
        Example: I poured myself a drink as I searched the room, looking for him.

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