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

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

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 phrase is the next event 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] …

What we don’t know from the printed sentence is whether we’re supposed to understand that he’s talking with John Smith AND London, or that he’s only talking to John Smith and—as another fact—London is going nuts. To create the latter meaning, a comma needed to be inserted as follows:

     … 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 this 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 that a writer can follow ? 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 and education. 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 contain a verb. 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. Examples:

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

Phrase (no verb)—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.

Clause (includes a verb)—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. (The clause, or 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. Examples:

WordHis comments, however, were ignored.

Phrase (no verb)—This sentence, for example, is punctuated correctly.

Clause (includes a verb)—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 clause or 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. Examples:

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

Clause (includes a verb)—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 the one who’s 35 years old. The clause or mini sentence is who lives in Texas.

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

WordI never repeat myself, never.

Phrase (no verb)—He faced his adversary, his back to the wall.

Clause (includes a verb)—He was humble, though he was very rich. The clause or mini-sentence is he was very rich.

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

There are 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. If 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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