The Comma: The Punctuation Device That Can Save Your Life!

Contributor: Kristen Gardiner. Lesson ID: 10427

No ice cream! No, ice cream! Which would YOU prefer? You'll learn all the rules for commas before playing online games and creating a Comma PSA to help others understand just how important commas are!



English / Language Arts
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


The Comma — The punctuation device that can save your life!

Take a look at the sentence hovering over the girl's head above. I'm sure she wouldn't appreciate being literally cut-and-pasted. A simple comma can save her from serious discomfort!

The comma is not just a useful piece of punctuation that helps to improve sentence structure; it has the power to completely change the meaning of a group of words. By the conclusion of this lesson, you may find that the comma is your best friend.

Here is another example of our shy and mild-mannered little friend swooping in to save the day:

What are the rules for using our good friend, the comma?

Use commas to separate independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone because they have their own subject and predicate) when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: "for," "and," "nor," "but," "or," "yet," "so."

  • What does this mean?

It means that you need to use a comma when you form a compound sentence. For example, "I am going to the store, but Sean is staying home."

independent clause

"But" is one of our seven coordinating conjunctions, and it is used to join these two clauses.

independent clause

When we join these two independent clauses with the coordinating conjunction "but," we need to use a comma.

Use commas after introductory dependent clauses and introductory phrases.

  • Introductory dependent clauses help to set the scene for the action or big news of the main clause. Remember, dependent clauses CANNOT stand alone.
    • These are usually adverb clauses.
    • For example:

introductory dependent clause

  • Introductory phrases also set the stage for the main action of the sentence, but they are not complete clauses. Phrases don't have both a subject and a verb that are separate from the subject and verb in the main clause of the sentence.
    • For example:

introductory phrase

  • Words that come before the main clause. Use a comma after introductory words like "however," "still," "furthermore," "meanwhile," and "please."
    • For example: "Louie was relieved that the sign was only a misprint. Meanwhile, the children in Mr. Payne's computer class learned how to use the cut and paste features in MS Word."
    • For example: "Please, stop leaving your dirty socks on the dining room floor!"
  • Don't forget to use a comma with interjections when the feeling's not that strong!
    • For example: "Rats, I forgot my science book."
    • This same rule also applies when you directly address someone in a sentence: "Bob, shut the door."

Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that really don’t impact the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

An example of this can be an appositive, a group of words that act as an adjective phrase to describe the subject.

For example, "Mr. Styles, my next door neighbor, works for the power company." In this example, "my next door neighbor" really has nothing to do with the meaning of the sentence. The only function of this group of words is to further explain the identity of Mr. Styles.

Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with "that" (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. For example, "The car that is parked by the back door belongs to my brother.

That clauses that follow a verb expressing mental action are always essential. For example, "Daniel is driving that car while his is in the shop."

In both cases, the that clause answers the question, "Which?," making it essential to the sentence.

Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

Here is a BAD example:

Susan enjoys cooking her family and her dog.

This sentence gives the impression that Susan enjoys cooking strange thing, when in fact there are three separate things listed.

This sentence should read, "Susan enjoys cooking, her family, and her dog."

Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself. For example, "When it comes to punctuation, nothing beats the amazing, diverse comma." Here, we have two clearly exclusive adjectives describing the same noun.

Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names. For example:

  1. (city, state) or (city, country) or (landmark, state), e.g., New Brunswick, New Jersey | Milan, Italy | Empire State Building, New York
  2. (month, year) or (day, date), e.g., April, 2020 | Tuesday, September 12
  3. (street, apartment or suite number) or (city, state), e.g., 135 Main St., Suite 102 | Anchorage, Alaska
  4. (name, title), e.g., Mary, Queen of Scotts | Henry Higgins, Jr. | Margaret R. Gardiner, Esquire

Use a comma to shift between the writing and a quotation. This could be in a piece of fiction where the quotation indicates dialogue between two or more characters, or it may be used in non-fiction to show the use of another person's (usually an expert) exact words to help prove a point. For example:

  • "Good morning, Mr. Smith," Sean sang as he strolled into the building on the last day before summer vacation. "And a fine morning to you as well, Sean," Mr. Smith replied with equal emotion.
  • Dr. Smith states in his latest book, Mysteries of the Deep, "The elusive narwhal is the unicorn of the sea" (1010).

Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted elements or to show an intentional, even DRAMATIC, pause:

  • Bob is coming for dinner, isn't he?
  • Sean is so peaceful when he sleeps, angelic almost.
  • Peter is doing well in math this year, quite well in fact.

There are some other dos and don'ts when it comes to using commas, because with a device that is so super amazing, there are bound to be more uses. For now, however, you are well on your way to saving lives and improving your writing.

So, intrepid student, continue on to the Got It? section for some interactive, educational fun!

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.