Oh commas. Does it go here? How about here? Delete it from where?

Do these questions sound familiar? I know they did for me! Until I discovered the following four basic comma rules, I often just ‘guessed’ when it came to comma placement. If I wrote a very long sentence, then I figured, I must need a comma (or two) somewhere, right? Not always! And if I created a relatively short sentence, then I figured no commas were necessary, right? Again, not always.

With the following four ‘rules’ many of your comma questions can be answered. Of course, as with any rule, there are ‘exceptions’, but by trying to practice the following, much of your confusion around commas may be alleviated.

Give them a try and see how it goes. Commas do help readers and writers with both clarity and style. Without them, well, our writing would be very very empty!

Usage: Here are four main ways to use the comma.

1) Put a comma before but, and, so, yet, or, for, and nor when they connect two sentences.

One way to remember these connectors is with the acronym FANBOYS.


Here are a couple of examples of this FANBOY rule:

Beatrice believed in the benefits of meditation, but she found it hard to find the time.

Claire could adopt a black kitten, or she could take a vacation.

2) Put a comma before items in a series of three or more.

Diamond walked the labyrinth in the fall, winter, spring and summer.

3) Put a comma after an introductory expression.

When it came to eating healthily, JFKU students scored the highest.

In this researcher’s opinion, children benefit most from eating lots of cookies and cakes.

4) Put a pair of commas around an insertion.

Her paper on Jung, however, was missing a thesis.

Cheryl, bursting with enthusiasm, organized the group presentation.

Common misuses:

1. No need to put a comma between a sentence and a phrase:

Dan was inspired by Ken Wilbur and intrigued by his philosophy.

2. No need to put a comma every time you breathe.

The tired student smoking a cigarette and sighing loudly at the sky is taking a break from his research paper.

Exercises: Can you fix these sentences?

  1. While I was waiting for the signal to change I thought of a quote by Louise Hay that I could use in my paper.
  2. Professor Sinclair who has much empathy for his students let Sandy turn her paper in late. 
  3. The students brought apples salad bread and cake to the potluck.
  4. Since coming to JFKU Holly has encountered both challenges and rewards.
How’d it go? Hopefully, with these rules in hand and some practice under your belt, your comma confusion can be on the road to clarity.

Finally, try reading aloud. While this isn’t always a foolproof method, it can often help to hear the pauses with those particularly pesky comma questions!

by the JFKU Writing Center