Using Commas to Set Off Words, Phrases, and Clauses

This may be the most misunderstood and misused grammar and punctuation rule in the English language. The focus of this post is on using commas to set off sentence “chunks”, as opposed to other uses like lists and dates and titles.

 Comma

Here’s an actual sentence from a favorite contemporary author:

     Next thing we know he’s talking with [John Smith] and [London] is going nuts.

The person’s name and the country capital used have been changed.

This gem needs a comma in one or more of three locations to make the sentence clear to the reader, as shown by a /.

     Next thing / we know / he’s talking with [John Smith] / and [London] is going nuts.

Putting a comma in each of the two possible opening phrases results in:

     Next thing, we know he’s talking with … [The opening is an event — the next in a series]

     Next thing we know, he’s talking with … [The opening is the latest knowledge gained]

Regardless of which opening is selected and reading the sentence one word at a time—without reading to the end of the sentence yet—the person being discussed may be talking with two entities, which are underlined:

     … he’s talking with [John Smith] and [London] …

If, on the other hand, the author did not mean for us to understand that “he’s” talking to “John Smith” AND “London”, but that he’s only talking to “John Smith” and—as another fact—“London” is not happy about that. To create that result, a comma is needed as shown:

     … he’s talking with [John Smith], and [London] is going nuts.

Which one of the above possible interpretations is the one the author intended? Who knows! Here, in an actual example, is a plea for better understanding of the use of commas to create clarity of communication when trying to set off certain parts of a sentence.

Are There Writing Rules

So, are there any simple writing rules to follow that can help a writer? The answer is YES and NO.

The YES response requires that you read or say the sentence out loud—SLOWLY. Wherever you naturally pause, either for effect or to take a breath, put in a comma. Clearly, this is going to be somewhat subjective, and may depend on the depth and diversity of your reading. But, if you keep your reader in mind — with the idea that you’re trying to clearly convey a thought in your mind to someone else’s mind — you should be okay.

The NO response results from the fact that individual words, phrases and clauses can appear at the beginning of a sentence, somewhere in the middle, or at the end. For clarity, a clause is a group of words that contains a subject and verb; a phrase does not. Furthermore, a clause may be used as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. Are your eyes glazing over yet?

Guidelines for Commas Used to Set Off Words, Phrases and Clauses

Here are some very simple, almost-common-sense “rules”, which hopefully, will be easy for you to remember.

Guideline 1: Word, phrase or clause at the beginning of a sentence—follow it with a comma. Here are some examples:

– Word — However, he never caught up to the bus. Other introductory words include: actually, basically, but, eventually, finally, furthermore, generally, later, meanwhile, therefore, yet.

– Phrase — On our way home, it started to rain. Other phrases start with words such as: about, as, in, of, to, with and end with a noun or a pronoun. They are missing a verb.

– Clause — Wherever they went on vacation, they met someone really friendly. Other clauses start with words such as: after, although, as, because, before, however, if, moreover, since, therefore, until, when, who, which, while. Note the presence of a verb (The mini-sentence is they went on vacation).

Guideline 2a: Word, phrase or clause in the middle of a sentence, where the word, phrase or clause could be removed or moved with no loss of the essential meaning of the sentence—use a comma at each end to separate it. Here are some examples:

– Word — His comments, however, were ignored.

– Phrase — This sentence, for example, is punctuated correctly. No verb

– Clause — Her cousin, who lives in Texas, is 35 years old. The major thought is: Her cousin is 35 years old. The fact that the cousin lives in Texas is merely supplemental information. The mini sentence is who lives in Texas.

Guideline 2b: Word, phrase or clause in the middle of a sentence, where the word, phrase or clause cannot be removed without losing the essential meaning of the sentence—do not use commas. Here are some examples:

– Word — My brother John moved away several years ago. The speaker apparently has more than one brother. One, in particular John, moved away several years ago.

– Phrase — Michelangelo the painter created the Sistine Chapel ceiling; Michelangelo the sculptor created the David statue. In these two sentences, it’s essential to the narrative to distinguish two faces of the artist Michelangelo. Each underlined phrase (no verb) is essential to the meaning.

– Clause — My cousin who lives in Texas is 35 years old. The reason for no commas in this sentence is that the person speaking apparently has more than one cousin, and wants to point out the specific cousin who lives in Texas is 35 years old. The mini sentence is, again, who lives in Texas.

Guideline 3: Word, phrase or clause at the end of a sentence—usually have a comma preceding it.

– Word — I never repeat myself, never.

– Phrase — He faced his adversary, his back to the wall. No verb.

– Clause — He was humble, though he was very rich. The mini-sentence is he was very rich.

– Exception — I would donate to many more charities if I were very rich. There’s no comma in front of the word if.

You can find lots more rules in standard style books and on the internet, but these cover many or most of the cases you’ll likely be concerned with. I you remember Rule 1, though, you should be able to resolve many of the problems with commas used to set off words, phrases, and clauses.

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