Commas are forms of punctuation used to suggest momentary pauses in the flow of writing or divisions of information. For this reason, commas should be used sparingly according to the following writing situations.

Compound sentences

Use a comma between two independent clauses (complete sentences) connected by the coordinating conjunctions and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so.

We lost our director, but Joe quickly filled the position.
Last year's score was our best ever, yet this year we scored 50 points higher.

For a comma to be needed with a coordinating conjunction, complete sentences should appear on either side of the connecting word. The following sentences do not contain two complete thoughts that can stand alone; therefore, no comma is necessary in either.

Everyone is asked to bring his music and join the mass chorus.
The Timber Notes hosted the show and provided the entertainment.
He once sang lead but now sings tenor.

Items in a series

Use commas to separate a list of items (words, phrases, or clauses) that appear in a series.

wordsA quartet consists of a lead, a bass, a tenor, and a baritone.
phrases Our chapter goals this year are to increase membership, to book more performances, and to enter the spring contest.
clauses Hal bought the brats, Ted brought the beans, Sam brought the beer, and I brought the pitch pipe.

A comma is not necessary between the next to last and last item in a series (for example, red, white and blue) unless the meaning is unclear. However, for many years, writers were required to insert a comma before the conjunction as a way of clearly distinguishing that three (or more) separate items are involved in the series. Whatever choice the editor makes, he should consistently apply it throughout the bulletin.

Caution: Some modifiers are so closely linked that a comma is not needed even if they do make up a series. Notice the differences in the following sentences:

The baritone is the tall, slender one on the left.
The chorus wore bright yellow uniforms.

To determine whether a comma is needed between modifiers in a series, insert the conjunction "and" between them. In the first example above, the phrase "tall and slender one" makes sense; therefore, a comma is used in place of the conjunction. In the second example, the phrase "bright and yellow" isn't as idiomatic. The word bright is acting as an adverb to describe the intensity of the color yellow. Therefore, no comma is needed.

Another choice to avoid unclarity might be to make the phrase bright yellow a hyphenated compound adjective:

Bright-yellow tuxedo        greenish-blue background        whippet-thin frame

Dates and Addresses

Use a comma after major units of a complete address or date, including the state and the year. However, a comma is not necessary to separate a month-year date.

He lived at 251 Fifth Street, Canyon City, Colo., before he moved.
He was born May 17, 1949, in Queen City, Mo.
The next judges' accreditation session will be in September 1996.


Transitional expressions

Use commas around words and phrases that interrupt the flow of the main clause. Some of these interrupters are however, moreover, finally, of course, I think, by the way, on the other hand, and therefore.

No one has suggested, by the way, that we should outlaw the use of non-member coaches.
Others in our chapter, however, argue that admitting women for membership would be a good idea.


Use commas to enclose a word or group of words that renames the word that comes before it.

I don't think that Mike, our new director, would mind our complimenting him on his first directing job.
I've always liked "The Mem'ry of Love That Is Gone," a song composed and arranged by Bob Brock.

Direct Address

Use commas to enclose the name or title of individuals directly addressed.

Mr. President, I move that the chapter purchase new risers.
We're delighted, John, to welcome you as a member.
What do you think we ought to do about his voice problems, Fred?
What do you think, guys, about a new chorus outfit?

Introductory expressions

Use a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause that leads to the main clause.

Yes, we sang the best we could.
Therefore, the music committee selected two new contest songs.
During the intermission, we played recorded music of champion quartets.
Running onto the stage, Willie slipped and broke his ankle.
After everyone else had left the afterglow, John and Pete stayed around to clean up.

Non-essential material

Use commas to enclose material that may be interesting and informative but isn't necessary in order to convey the sentence's main idea.

Marty Johnson, who used to sing with the Flat Foot Four, recently was promoted to assistant director of our chorus.
"My Gal Sal," written by Paul Dresser, was an immensely popular song.
The song that we selected for our finale has been changed.

In the first example, the clause "who used to sing with the Flat Foot Four" is not essential to the main idea of the sentence. Therefore, it should be enclosed in commas. In the second example, the phrase "written by Paul Dresser" could be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence. It, too, should use enclosing commas. In the third example, the clause "that we selected for our finale" is essential to the main idea of the sentence. Without it, the sentence would read "The song has been changed." However, readers have no idea which song.

Miscellaneous uses of commas

Contrasting expressions

Use a comma to set off contrasting or opposing expressions within sentences.

He sang baritone, not lead.
The cost is not $50, but $500.


Use commas to introduce a direct quotation, to terminate a direct quotation, or to enclose split quotations.

Mike said, "I can sing tenor."
"I can sing tenor," said Mike.
"I can sing tenor," Mike said with determination, "even if you pitch up the songs."

Note that if the quotation is not being presented as actual dialogue, commas are not used.

He said he wanted to leave immediately to go home; however, he stayed for over an hour to sing tags.

Interrogative clauses

Use commas to separate a declarative sentence and an interrogative clause which immediately follows.

That's a great arrangement, isn't it?
Wayne is expected to become our show chairman, isn't he?


Use commas to indicate the omission of a word or words, especially in sentence forms that show an immediate dual structure.

Some quartets prefer ballads; others, up tunes.


Use commas to separate proper names from a following corporation, academic, honorary, governmental, or military title.

Val J. Hicks, Ph.D.
Fred Wismer, Vice President


Use commas following the salutation in informal correspondence and the complementary closing in formal or informal letters.

Dear Mark,
Sincerely yours,


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