One of the punctuation clues to reading you may encounter is the comma. The comma is a punctuation mark that indicates a pause in a sentence or a separation of items in a list. Commas can be used in a variety of ways. Look at some of the following sentences to see how you might use a comma when writing a sentence.
- Introductory word: Personally, I think the practice is helpful.
- Lists: The barn, the tool shed, and the back porch were destroyed by the wind.
- Coordinating adjectives: He was a tired, hungry boy.
- Conjunctions in compound sentences: The bedroom door was closed, so the children knew their mother was asleep.
- Interrupting words: I knew where it was hidden, of course, but I wanted them to find it themselves.
- Dates, addresses, greetings, and letters: The letter was postmarked December 8, 1945.
- Clarification: Let’s eat, Grandma.
Commas after an Introductory Word or Phrase
You may notice a comma that appears near the beginning of the sentence, usually after a word or phrase. This comma lets the reader know where the introductory word or phrase ends and the main sentence begins.
Without spoiling the surprise, we need to tell her to save the date.
In this sentence, without spoiling the surprise is an introductory phrase, while we need to tell her to save the date is the main sentence. Notice how they are separated by a comma. When only an introductory word appears in the sentence, a comma also follows the introductory word.
Ironically, she already had plans for that day.
Look for the introductory word or phrase. On your own sheet of paper, copy the sentence and add a comma to correct the sentence.
1. Suddenly the dog ran into the house.
2. In the blink of an eye the kids were ready to go to the movies.
3. Confused he tried opening the box from the other end.
4. Every year we go camping in the woods.
5. Without a doubt green is my favorite color.
6. Hesitating she looked back at the directions before proceeding.
7. Fortunately the sleeping baby did not stir when the doorbell rang.
8. Believe it or not the criminal was able to rob the same bank three times.
Commas in a List of Items
When listing several nouns in a sentence, separate each word with a comma. This allows the reader to pause after each item and identify which words are included in the grouping. When you list items in a sentence, put a comma after each noun, then add the word and before the last item. The Oxford comma is when one adds a comma before the and that precedes the last item in the list. This is a style choice and is often optional.
We’ll need to get flour, tomatoes, and cheese at the store.
The pizza will be topped with olives, peppers and pineapple chunks.
Commas and Coordinating Adjectives
You can use commas to list both adjectives and nouns. A string of adjectives that describe a noun are called coordinating adjectives. These adjectives come before the noun they modify and are most often separated by commas. One important thing to note, however, is that unlike listing nouns, the word and does not always need to be before the last adjective.
It was a bright, windy, clear day. (a list of coordinating adjectives–no and needed)
Our kite glowed red, yellow, and blue in the morning sunlight. (a list of nouns–and needed)
Not all uses of two adjectives require a comma, though.
The class was made up of dedicated medical students. (both dedicated and medical describe students, but medical is essential to confirm what type of students so no comma is needed.)
On your own sheet of paper, use what you have learned so far about comma use to add commas to the following sentences.
1. Monday Tuesday and Wednesday are all booked with meetings.
2. It was a quiet uneventful unproductive day.
3. We’ll need to prepare statements for the Franks Todds and Smiths before their portfolio
reviews next week.
4. Michael Nita and Desmond finished their report last Tuesday.
5. With cold wet aching fingers he was able to secure the sails before the storm.
6. He wrote his name on the board in clear precise delicate letters.
Commas before Conjunctions in Compound Sentences
Commas are sometimes used to separate two independent clauses that are included in the same sentence. The comma comes after the first independent clause and is followed by a conjunction, such as for, and, or but. For a full list of conjunctions, see “Writing Basics: What Makes a Good Sentence?”.
He missed class today, and he thinks he will be out tomorrow, too.
He says his fever is gone, but he is still very tired.
On your own sheet of paper, create a compound sentence by combining the two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction.
1. The presentation was scheduled for Monday. The weather delayed the presentation for four days.
2. He wanted a snack before bedtime. He ate some fruit.
3. The patient is in the next room. I can hardly hear anything.
4. We could go camping for vacation. We could go to the beach for vacation.
5. I want to get a better job. I am taking courses at night.
6. I cannot move forward on this project. I cannot afford to stop on this project.
7. Patrice wants to stop for lunch. We will take the next exit to look for a restaurant.
8. I’ve got to get this paper done. I have class in ten minutes.The weather was clear yesterday. We decided to go on a picnic.
9. I have never dealt with this client before. I know Leonardo has worked with them. Let’s ask Leonardo for his help.
Commas before and after Interrupting Words
In conversations, you might interrupt your train of thought by giving more details about what you are talking about. In a sentence, you might interrupt your train of thought with a word or phrase called interrupting words. Interrupting words can come at the beginning or middle of a sentence. When the interrupting words appear at the beginning of the sentence, a comma appears after the word or phrase.
If you can believe it, people once thought the sun and planets orbited around Earth.
Luckily, some people questioned that theory.
When interrupting words come in the middle of a sentence, they are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. You can determine where the commas should go by looking for the part of the sentence that is not essential for the sentence to make sense. In other words, you can take out the interrupting words, and the sentence will still be complete and sensible.
My sister, a psychologist, lives in New York.
Her car, which has side air bags, has a higher insurance rate than her truck.
On your own sheet of paper, copy the sentence and insert commas to separate the interrupting words from the rest of the sentence.
1. I asked my neighbors the retired couple from Florida to bring in my mail.
2. Without a doubt his work has improved over the last few weeks.
3. Our professor Mr. Alamut drilled the lessons into our heads.
4. The meeting is at noon unfortunately which means I will be late for lunch.
5. We came in time for the last part of dinner but most importantly we came in time for dessert.
6. All of a sudden our network crashed and we lost our files.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
Commas in Dates, Addresses, and the Greetings and Closings of Letters
You also use commas when you write a date, such as in cover letters and e-mails. Commas are used when you write the date, when you include an address, and when you greet someone.
If you are writing out the full date, add a comma after the day and before the year. You do not need to add a comma when you write the month and day or when you write the month and the year. If you need to continue the sentence after you add a date that includes the day and year, add a comma after the end of the date.
The letter is postmarked May 4, 2001.
Her birthday is May 5.
He visited the country in July 2009.
I registered for the conference on March 7, 2010, so we should get our tickets soon.
Also use commas when you include addresses and locations. When you include an address in a sentence, be sure to place a comma after the street and after the city. Do not place a comma between the state and the zip code. Like a date, if you need to continue the sentence after adding the address, simply add a comma after the address.
We moved to 4542 Boxcutter Lane, Hope, Missouri 70832.
After moving to Boston, Massachusetts, Eric used public transportation to get to work.
Greetings are also separated by commas. When you write an e-mail or a letter, you add a comma after the greeting word or the person’s name. You also need to include a comma after the closing, which is the word or phrase you put before your signature.
I would like more information about your job posting.
Dear Mrs. Al-Sayf,
Thank you for your letter. Please read the attached document for details.
On your own sheet of paper, use what you have learned about using commas to edit the following letter.
March 27 2010
14 Taylor Drive Apt. 6
New Castle Maine 90342
Dear Mr. Timmons
Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I am available on Monday the fifth. I can stop by your office at any time. Is your address still 7309 Marcourt Circle #501? Please get back to me at your earliest convenience.
Commas for Clarification
Sometimes no specific rule calls for a comma, yet one is needed to clarify or eliminate confusion.
Unclear: To Emily Frank was an annoying person.
Clear: To Emily, Henry was an annoying person.
Unclear: The room was full of crying babies and mothers.
Clear: The room was fully of crying babies, and mothers.
On your own sheet of paper, use what you have learned about comma usage to edit the following paragraphs.
1. My brother Nathaniel is a collector of many rare unusual things. He has collected lunch boxes limited edition books and hatpins at various points of his life. His current collection of unusual bottles has over fifty pieces. Usually he sells one collection before starting another.
2. Our meeting is scheduled for Thursday March 20. In that time we need to gather all our documents together. Alice is in charge of the timetables and schedules. Tom is in charge of updating the guidelines. I am in charge of the presentation. To prepare for this meeting please print out any e-mails faxes or documents you have referred to when writing your sample.
3. It was a cool crisp autumn day when the group set out. They needed to cover several miles before they made camp so they walked at a brisk pace. The leader of the group Garth kept checking his watch and their GPS location. Isabelle Raoul and Maggie took turns carrying the equipment while Carrie took notes about the wildlife they saw. As a result no one noticed the darkening sky until the first drops of rain splattered on their faces.
4. Please have your report complete and filed by April 15 2010. In your submission letter please include your contact information the position you are applying for and two people we can contact as references. We will not be available for consultation after April 10 but you may contact the office if you have any questions. Thank you HR Department.
Please share with a classmate and compare your answers.
- Punctuation marks provide visual cues to readers to tell them how to read a sentence and convey meaning.
- A comma should be used after an introductory word to separate this word from the main sentence.
- A comma comes after every coordinating adjective except for the last adjective.
- Commas can be used to separate the two independent clauses in compound sentences as long as a conjunction follows the comma.
- Commas are used to separate interrupting words from the rest of the sentence.
- When you write the date, you add a comma between the day and the year. You also add a comma after the year if the sentence continues after the date.
- When they are used in a sentence, addresses have commas after the street address, and the city. If a sentence continues after the address, a comma comes after the zip code.
- When you write a letter, you use commas in your greeting at the beginning and in your closing at the end of your letter.
Another punctuation mark that you will encounter is the semicolon (;). Like most punctuation marks, the semicolon can be used in a variety of ways. The semicolon indicates a break in the flow of a sentence but functions differently than a period or a comma. When you encounter a semicolon while reading aloud, this represents a good place to pause and take a breath.
Semicolons to Join Two Independent Clauses
Use a semicolon to combine two closely related independent clauses. Relying on a period to separate the related clauses into two shorter sentences could lead to choppy writing. Using a comma would create an awkward run-on sentence.
Correct: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview; appearances are important.
Choppy: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview. Appearances are important.
Incorrect: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview, appearances are important.
In this case, writing the independent clauses as two sentences separated by a period is correct. However, using a semicolon to combine the clauses can make your writing more interesting by creating a variety of sentence lengths and structures while preserving the flow of ideas.
Semicolons to Join Items in a List
You can also use a semicolon to join items in a list when the items in the list already require commas. Semicolons help the reader distinguish between items in the list.
Correct: The color combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey; green, brown, and black; or red, green, and brown.
Incorrect: The color combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey, green, brown, and black, or red, green, and brown.
By using semicolons in this sentence, the reader can easily distinguish between the three sets of colors.
Use semicolons to join two main clauses. Do not use semicolons with coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but.
On your own sheet of paper, correct the following sentences by adding semicolons. If the sentence is correct as it is, write OK.
1. I did not notice that you were in the office I was behind the front desk all day.
2. Do you want turkey, spinach, and cheese roast beef, lettuce, and cheese or ham, tomato, and cheese?
3. Please close the blinds there is a glare on the screen.
4. Unbelievably, no one was hurt in the accident.
5. I cannot decide if I want my room to be green, brown, and purple green, black, and brown or green, brown, and dark red.
6. Let’s go for a walk the air is so refreshing.
- Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses.
- Use a semicolon to separate items in a list when those items already require a comma.
The colon (:) is another punctuation mark used to indicate a full stop. Use a colon to introduce lists, quotes, examples, and explanations. You can also use a colon after the greeting in business letters and memos.
Dear Hiring Manager:
To: Human Resources
From: Deanna Dean
Colons to Introduce a List
Use a colon to introduce a list of items. Introduce the list with an independent clause.
The team will tour three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
I have to take four classes this semester: Composition, Statistics, Ethics, and Italian.
Colons to Introduce a Quote
You can use a colon to introduce a quote.
Mark Twain said it best: “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
If a quote is longer than forty words, skip a line after the colon and indent the left margin of the quote five spaces. Because quotations longer than forty words use line spacing and indentation to indicate a quote, quotation marks are not necessary.
My father always loved Mark Twain’s words:
There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim
to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.
Long quotations, which are more than four typed lines, are called block quotations. Block quotations frequently appear in longer essays and research papers. For more information about block quotations, see this resource (https://tinyurl.com/nwzhlbk).
Colons to Introduce Examples or Explanations
Use a colon to introduce an example or to further explain an idea presented in the first part of a sentence. The first part of the sentence must always be an independent clause; that is, it must stand alone as a complete thought with a subject and verb. Do not use a colon after phrases like such as or for example.
Correct: Our company offers many publishing services: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Incorrect: Our company offers many publishing services, such as: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Also, do not use a colon after introductory verbs.
Correct: My favorite things to eat are dark chocolate, taffy, and french fries.
Incorrect: My favorite things to eat are: dark chocolate, taffy, and french fries.
Capitalize the first letter following a colon for a proper noun, the beginning of a quote, or the first letter of another independent clause. Do NOT capitalize if the information following the colon is not a complete sentence.
Proper noun: We visited three countries: Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Beginning of a quote: My mother loved this line from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”
Two independent clauses: There are drawbacks to modern technology: My brother’s cell phone died and he lost a lot of phone numbers.
Incorrect: The recipe is simple: Tomato, basil, and avocado.
On your own sheet of paper, correct the following sentences by adding semicolons or colons where needed. If the sentence does not need a semicolon or colon, write OK.
1. Don’t give up you never know what tomorrow brings.
2. Our records show that the patient was admitted on March 9, 2010 January 13, 2010 and November 16, 2009.
3. Allow me to introduce myself I am the greatest ice-carver in the world.
4. Where I come from there are three ways to get to the grocery store by car, by bus, and by foot.
5. Listen closely you will want to remember this speech.
6. I have lived in Sedona, Arizona Baltimore, Maryland and Knoxville, Tennessee.
7. The boss’s message was clear Lateness would not be tolerated.
8. Next semester, we will read some more contemporary authors, such as Vonnegut, Miller, and Orwell.
9. My little sister said what we were all thinking “We should have stayed home.”
10. Trust me I have done this before.
- Use a colon to introduce a list, quote, or example.
- Use a colon after a greeting in business letters and memos.
Quotation marks (“ ”) set off a group of words from the rest of the text. Use quotation marks to indicate direct quotations of another person’s words or to indicate a title. Quotation marks always appear in pairs.
A direct quotation is an exact account of what someone said or wrote. To include a direct quotation in your writing, enclose the words in quotation marks. An indirect quotation is a restatement of what someone said or wrote. An indirect quotation does not use the person’s exact words. You do not need to use quotation marks for indirect quotations.
Direct quotation: Carly said, “I’m not ever going back there again.”
Indirect quotation: Carly said that she would never go back there.
Writing at Work
Most word processing software is designed to catch errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. While this can be a useful tool, it is better to be well acquainted with the rules of punctuation than to leave the thinking to a computer. Properly punctuated writing will convey your meaning clearly. Consider the subtle shifts in meaning in the following sentences:
- The client said he thought our manuscript was garbage.
- The client said, “He thought our manuscript was garbage.”
Punctuating Direct Quotations
Quotation marks show readers another person’s exact words. Often, you should identify who is speaking. You can do this at the beginning, middle, or end of the quote. Notice the use of commas and capitalized words.
Beginning: Madison said, “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
Middle: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market,” Madison said, “to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
End: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner,” Madison said.
Speaker not identified: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
Always capitalize the first letter of a quote even if it is not the beginning of the sentence. When using identifying words in the middle of the quote, the beginning of the second part of the quote does not need to be capitalized.
Use commas between identifying words and quotes. Quotation marks must be placed after commas and periods. Place quotation marks after question marks and exclamation points only if the question or exclamation is part of the quoted text.
Question is part of quoted text: The new employee asked, “When is lunch?”
Question is not part of quoted text: Did you hear her say you were “the next Picasso”?
Exclamation is part of quoted text: My supervisor beamed, “Thanks for all of your hard work!”
Exclamation is not part of quoted text: He said I “single-handedly saved the company thousands of dollars”!
Quotations within Quotations
Use single quotation marks (‘ ’) to show a quotation within in a quotation.
Theresa said, “I wanted to take my dog to the festival, but the man at the gate said, ‘No dogs allowed.’”
“When you say, ‘I can’t help it,’ what exactly does that mean?”
“The instructions say, ‘Tighten the screws one at a time.’”
Use quotation marks around titles of short works of writing, such as essays, songs, poems, short stories, articles in periodicals, and chapters in books. Usually, titles of longer works, such as books, magazines, albums, newspapers, and novels, are italicized.
“Annabelle Lee” is one of my favorite romantic poems.
The New York Times has been in publication since 1851.
Writing at Work
In many businesses, the difference between exact wording and a paraphrase is extremely important. For legal purposes, or for the purposes of doing a job correctly, it can be important to know exactly what the client, customer, or supervisor said. Sometimes, important details can be lost when instructions are paraphrased. Use quotes to indicate exact words where needed, and let your coworkers know the source of the quotation (client, customer, peer, etc.).
Copy the following sentences onto your own sheet of paper, and correct them by adding quotation marks where necessary. If the sentence does not need any quotation marks, write OK.
1. Yasmin said, I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s go out to eat.
2. Where should we go? said Russell.
3. Yasmin said it didn’t matter to her.
4. I know, said Russell, let’s go to the Two Roads Juice Bar.
5. Perfect! said Yasmin.
6. Did you know that the name of the Juice Bar is a reference to a poem? asked Russell.
7. I didn’t! exclaimed Yasmin. Which poem?
8. The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost Russell explained.
9. Oh! said Yasmin, Is that the one that starts with the line, Two roads diverged in a yellow wood?
10. That’s the one said Russell.
- Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotes and titles of short works.
- Use single quotation marks to enclose a quote within a quote.
- Do not use any quotation marks for indirect quotations.
An apostrophe (’) is a punctuation mark that is used with a noun to show possession or to indicate where a letter has been left out to form a contraction.
An apostrophe and the letter s indicate who or what owns something. To show possession with a singular noun, add ’s.
Jen’s dance routine mesmerized everyone in the room.
The dog’s leash is hanging on the hook beside the door.
Jess’s sister is also coming to the party.
Notice that singular nouns that end in s still take the apostrophe s (’s) ending to show possession.
To show possession with a plural noun that ends in s, just add an apostrophe (’). If the plural noun does not end in s, add an apostrophe and an s (’s).
Plural noun that ends in s: The drummers’ sticks all moved in the same rhythm, like a machine.
Plural noun that does not end in s: The people’s votes clearly showed that no one supported the management decision.
Do not use apostrophes for plurals. It is a common mistake and easy to find in signs and even newspapers.
Correct: The 1980s were when neon colors came into their own in the world of fashion.
Incorrect: The 1980’s were when neon color’s came into their own in the world of fashion.
A contraction is a word that is formed by combining two words. In a contraction, an apostrophe shows where one or more letters have been left out. Contractions are commonly used in informal writing but not in formal writing.
I do not like ice cream.
I don’t like ice cream.
Notice how the words do and not have been combined to form the contraction don’t. The apostrophe shows where the o in not has been left out.
We will see you later.
We’ll see you later.
Look at the chart for some examples of commonly used contractions.
Figure 0.1 “Commonly Used Contractions”
Be careful not to confuse it’s with its. It’s is a contraction of the words it and is. Its is a possessive pronoun.
It’s cold and rainy outside. (It is cold and rainy outside.)
The cat was chasing its tail. (Shows that the tail belongs to the cat.)
When in doubt, substitute the words it is in a sentence. If sentence still makes sense, use the contraction it’s.
On your own sheet of paper, correct the following sentences by adding apostrophes. If the sentence is correct as it is, write OK.
1. “What a beautiful child! She has her mothers eyes.”
2. My brothers wife is one of my best friends.
3. I couldnt believe it when I found out that I got the job!
4. My supervisors informed me that I wouldnt be able to take the days off.
5. Each of the students responses were unique.
6. Wont you please join me for dinner tonight?
- Use apostrophes to show possession. Add ’s to singular nouns and plural nouns that do not end in s. Add ’ to plural nouns that end in s.
- Use apostrophes in contractions to show where a letter or letters have been left out.
Parentheses ( ) are punctuation marks that are always used in pairs and contain material that is secondary to the meaning of a sentence. Parentheses must never contain the subject or verb of a sentence. A sentence should make sense if you delete any text within parentheses and the parentheses.
Attack of the Killer Potatoes has to be the worst movie I have seen (so far).
Your spinach and garlic salad is one of the most delicious (and nutritious) foods I have ever tasted!
On your own sheet of paper, clarify the following sentences by adding parentheses. If the sentence is clear as it is, write OK.
1. Are you going to the seminar this weekend I am?
2. I recommend that you try the sushi bar unless you don’t like sushi.
3. I was able to solve the puzzle after taking a few moments to think about it.
4. Please complete the questionnaire at the end of this letter.
5. Has anyone besides me read the assignment?
6. Please be sure to circle not underline the correct answers.
- Parentheses enclose information that is secondary to the meaning of a sentence.
- Parentheses are always used in pairs.
A dash (—) is a punctuation mark used to set off information in a sentence for emphasis. You can enclose text between two dashes, or use just one dash. To create a dash in Microsoft Word, type two hyphens together. Do not put a space between dashes and text.
Arrive to the interview early—but not too early.
Any of the suits—except for the purple one—should be fine to wear.
On your own sheet of paper, clarify the following sentences by adding dashes. If the sentence is clear as it is, write OK.
1. Which hairstyle do you prefer short or long?
2. I don’t know I hadn’t even thought about that.
3. Guess what I got the job!
4. I will be happy to work over the weekend if I can have Monday off.
5. You have all the qualities that we are looking for in a candidate intelligence, dedication, and a strong work ethic.
- Dashes indicate a pause in text.
- Dashes set off information in a sentence to show emphasis.
A hyphen (-) looks similar to a dash but is shorter and used in different ways.
Hyphens between Two Adjectives That Work as One
Use a hyphen to combine words that work together to form a single description.
The fifty–five–year–old athlete was just as qualified for the marathon as his younger opponents.
My doctor recommended against taking the medication, since it can be habit–forming.
My study group focused on preparing for the midyear review.
Hyphens When a Word Breaks at the End of a Line
Use a hyphen to divide a word across two lines of text. You may notice that most word-processing programs will do this for you. If you have to manually insert a hyphen, place the hyphen between two syllables. If you are unsure of where to place the hyphen, consult a dictionary or move the entire word to the next line.
My supervisor was concerned that the team meet–
ing would conflict with the client meeting.
- Hyphens join words that work as one adjective.
- Hyphens break words across two lines of text.
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Writing for Success, CC-BY-NC-SA.
Figure 9.1 “Commonly Used Contractions,” Kalyca Schultz, Virginia Western Community College, CC-0.