Cleaning Your Copy: Commas
Punctuation helps the reader understand a story. Commas, periods, dashes and other marks convey the writer's voice. They signal an emphasis or tone in language, as well as tell a reader when to stop or pause. Here are some guidelines for using commas.
If a word or phrase is essential, do not put commas around it.
- Essential: People who eat a lot of cookies may gain weight.
- Nonessential: My sister, who eats a lot of cookies, never gains weight.
Here's another way to think about what's essential.
- My husband, Bubba, finished driving school. (I have one husband. His name is not essential to the sentence.)
- My husband Bubba finished driving school. (I have lots of husbands, so the reader needs to know which one.)
Use a comma before a conjunction that joins two clauses that could stand alone.
- The police found the gun lying 10 feet away, and they began dusting the area for fingerprints. (Use a comma. Each clause has a subject and verb.)
- The police found the gun lying 10 feet away and began dusting the area for fingerprints. (No comma. The sentence has only one subject, used with compound verbs.)
Use a comma after most introductory clauses or phrases.
- Just as the pilot stepped into the cockpit, the first alarm sounded.
- Irritated, she turned around and climbed back out.
The comma goes before the conjunction, and only if the conjunction joins two independent clauses.
- Wrong: Legislators thought they had finished for the session but, the governor called them back.
- Right: Legislators thought they had finished for the session, but the governor called them back.
However, parenthetical material after a conjunction needs to be set off with commas. (Although if you need this many commas, you may want to revise the sentence.)
- Right: Poll workers said they didn't see many voters, but, at county offices, election officials reported a high voter turnout.