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Comma Basics

Comma Basics

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson describes the basics of using commas.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn all about commas, from the basics of comma usage to when writers should and should not use them.

Commas are incredibly common in writing. And though all writers use them, we're not always sure how, when, and why we do so. Or even what comments are, for that matter. Put most simply, a comma is punctuation used to differentiate between many of the elements in a sentence. We use them as necessary to clarify meaning. But too many, like too few, makes for harder reading and, often, grammatically incorrect sentences.

A good way to find out whether you should use a comma is to read the sentences out loud and ask yourself if the comma would add an awkward or distracting break. There should always be a good reason for using a comma. As for those reasons, there are several roles commas play in a sentence. The first is to separate a introductory word, phrase, or clause. For example, the comma in this sentence is fulfilling this role. For my last trick, I will turn this rabbit into a pumpkin.

Commas can also be used to separate independent clauses when they are joined by coordinating conjunction as in the sentence. I wanted to be at the party, but I couldn't find a ride. We can also use commas in the middle of sentences to highlight words, phrases, or clauses that add other, nonessential information to the sentence. Take this sentence for example. It's been a long time, years actually, since I last saw my brother. Here, the main clause of the sentence is that it's been a long time since the speaker last saw his or her brother. And the nonessential information, that it's actually been years, is added through use of two comments. If the information was essential, rather than extraneous like in this example, we wouldn't use commas.

And that's not all. There are other roles commas can play. One of the most common is to separate more than two words in a list or series. For example, the commas in this sentence are doing just that. She enjoys movies, spinners, and long walks on the beach. We also use them close to the end of a sentence to highlight shifts in tone or to draw contrasts. For example, look and listen to the contrast towards the end of this sentence, signalled by the comma. He didn't make friends easily, back then. Did you hear it? The way the information at the end of the sentence has a different tone because it's qualifying and partially refuting the information in the first clause. We signal this with a pause in speech and a comma in writing.

We also use commas to separate locations, address information, and the year within dates. For example, the way most of us would start a dated diary entry, January 2, 2000. And now, notice the commas here in the address of the White House. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20500.

Finally, we use commas in essays and other writing projects to separate the writer's words from those of a quoted source. For example, this obviously fictional quotation. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, I invented the internet. So as you can see, we use commas in sentences for many different reasons. The key is to always have a reason in mind for yours.

What have we learned today? We learned about commas. How, when, and why to use them. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.