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.

Taken from Cleaning Your Copy, a self-directed course at Poynter NewsU.

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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.


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