This is a guest post by Joyce Elferdink/ With its special knack for transforming ambiguity into precision, the comma is necessary to conveying our intended meaning as writers (think: “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.” Yikes!). It’s also a grammatical convention with so many rules that it becomes easy to make mistakes. The common comma—it’s not only necessary to good writing, it’s also a thing of beauty.

Here are 6 rules for you to write by. If used correctly, they should eliminate nearly 98% of your comma usage errors:

1. Place a comma after each introductory word, phrase, or clause.


  • Finally, he got in his car and drove away.
  • Under the new government, every citizen over 21 is allowed to vote.
  • Once the parking tickets have been paid, you’ll get your license back.

2. Place a comma on each side of a nonessential element.


  • My brother, who is younger than I am by five years, likes to work puzzles.


3. Place a comma before the coordinating conjunction when you combine two independent clauses into a single sentence.


  • Her mother holds a doctorate from MIT, and her father teaches at Purdue.


4. Place a comma after but not before a dependent clause.


  • When the fire alarm sounded, the children paraded out of the school building.
  • The children paraded out of the school building when the fire alarm sounded.


5. Place a comma between items in a series.


  • When you come over tonight, bring your sleeping bag, your pillow, and a few bags of popcorn.


6. Use a comma to separate a direct quote from a signal phrase such as “he said” or “she replied.”


  • “I think you’d better put your hat back on,” she said laughing.


Pop Quiz: Which is correct?


  1. A panda eats, shoots, and leaves.
  2. A panda eats shoot and leaves.

*Thanks to Lynne Truss’s book for this brilliant example.

After watching the movie, Julie and Julia, she realized the significance of shared glimpses and gambits on what is purposeful and meaningful in our lives. That same day she created her blog, “A Novel Site.” You can visit her and it at According to the Myers-Briggs personality profile, Joyce Elferdink is an ENFP—she thinks that about sums it up.


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