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Using Commas

Commas indicate a small separation, semi-colons are a medium separation and periods are a large separation. Commas help people know how words are grouped together and connected or not connected.

Grammar is complicated and frequently has exceptions. These tips will help you use commas correctly most of the time, but they're not exact or complete.

This article assumes you already understand clauses, phrases and parts of speech (including coordinating and subordinating conjunctions). I explain those, and more, in English Language, Analysis & Grammar.

Commas Between Clauses

Commas are sometimes used to separate clauses which are joined with a conjunction. To join two clauses with no conjunction, use a semi-colon. There are four common patterns:

Usually put a comma before a coordinating conjunction which joines two clauses:

Commas can be tricky for some people, but reading a guide can help people who are interested in learning.

But coordinate clauses don't need a comma if they're simple enough:

I like cats and I like dogs.

You don't usually use a comma for a subordinating conjunction:

I want soup because it's warm.

But when the subordinate clause is before the main clause, then you need a comma between clauses:

If you want to stay warm, bring a jacket.

Commas are common when words aren't in the standard order.

Commas Between Phrases

Don't use a comma for a coordinating conjunction joining two phrases. Example:

I like cats and dogs.

Here "and" joins the noun-phrases "cats" and "dogs". There aren't two clauses, so don't use a comma.

Commas are used for lists of phrases. A list means three or more phrases in a row of the same type, like this:

I like cats, dogs, mice [optional comma] and birds.

As a general rule of thumb, leave out unnecessary things when writing. But another rule of thumb is to be clear and avoid anything confusing. So if the optional comma helps prevent confusion, it's good, but otherwise it's bad. The optional comma generally helps when list items are long or contain conjunctions like "and" or "or".

With lists, you can see it like putting a comma where you leave out an "and". It's like you shortened "I like cats and dogs and mice and birds".

Adjectives (and adverbs) can be treated like a list, even if there are only two and there's no conjunction. For example:

I bought a big, expensive car.

This basically means "big and expensive car".

Don't use commas where you couldn't say "and". E.g.:

I bought a red sports car.

You wouldn't say "a red and sports car". That's wrong, so there's no comma here. You can also consider if changing the order works: you can say "an expensive, big car" (it's just a little awkward) but you can't say "a sports, red car".

"Sports" is grouped more tightly with "car" than "red" is. It has a stronger connection. That means "sports" and "red" aren't peers or equals. They aren't really forming a list together because they aren't fully the same type of thing. And if they aren't part of the same list, that takes away the reason to use a comma.

Commas for Asides

Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

Commas can set aside a clause:

Monday, which is a holiday, is the only day I'm available.

Or a phrase:

Joe, on the other hand, is hillarious.

Or a single word:

In this case, however, I think he's lying.

Commas are commonly used with introductory phrases:

By the way, I like food.

This is similar to using commas in the middle of the sentence, but at the start or end of a sentence you can separate some words with only one comma. Here's a comma for a phrase at the end of a sentence:

Cars are useful, by the way.

Commas are also common with appositives (two or more noun phrases in a row):

The insect, a cockroach, crawled on my food.

Note that the words "a cockroach" could be deleted from the sentence and it'd still make sense.


Elliot Temple on February 23, 2020

Messages (8)

“which” vs “that”

> Commas are sometimes used to separate clauses which are joined with a conjunction.

The text after “which” describes the clauses to which the first part of the sentence refers, as opposed to adding optional info about clauses in general. This means that “which” should be a *restrictive modifier*. Apparently, though, in American English (though not in British English), “which” is not used as a restrictive modifier. Therefore, if the essay is written for an audience that is mainly familiar with American English, “which” should be “that”.


Alisa at 1:30 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16358 | reply | quote

#16358 Yeah I intended that text to be restrictive. Clauses aren't all joined by conjunctions. E.g. they can be joined with semicolons or, in a sense, periods.

I think "which" is used both ways in America. I'm not convinced by that article which just makes an assertion.


curi at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16359 | reply | quote

More on “which” vs “that”

#16359 The Grammarly blog says:

> British and American English have different rules for [that and which]. In American English, *that* is used to introduce **restrictive clauses**, and *which* introduces **nonrestrictive clauses**... In British English, it is often acceptable to substitute *which* in restrictive clauses.

According to Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015) (retyped from Google Books):

> In AmE *which* is not generally used in restrictive clauses...

After reading the above, I formulated the rules below. I expect that following these rules will help me read and write text that is grammatically correct in *both* American and British English (at least, according to the sources cited above).

- Reading: *That* is always restrictive. *Which* is also restrictive, unless it is directly preceded by a comma, in which case it is non-restrictive.

- Writing: Whenever both *which* and *that* sound correct, check the meaning: if restrictive, use *that*; otherwise, use *which* and precede it by a comma.


Alisa at 3:02 PM on April 13, 2020 | #16360 | reply | quote

I went through the comma-focused material in Leonard Peikoff's course:

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-lecture-6-notes/

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-homework-6/

There is a lot of overlap with what Elliot says. Peikoff likes to give more names to lots of individual cases, whereas Elliot groups them into bigger overarching themes, but there is broad agreement between LP and ET as to substance.

One point of disagreement i noticed was:

http://justinmallone.com/2020/10/leonard-peikoff-grammar-course-lecture-6-notes/#Alternatives_to_Commas_for_Parenthetical_Remarks

> Peikoff says greatest emphasis to side remark is given by dashes, least by parentheses, and middle amount of emphasis is commas.

whereas ET says above:

> Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

I interpret ET as saying that commas are "weaker" in terms of setting things aside.

So LP says dashes > commas > parens, but I read ET as implying that parens > commas.

I found something online which says:

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/dashes-parentheses-and-commas

> In general, you can think of parentheses, commas, and dashes as a continuum of marks. Parentheses are the quiet whisper of an aside, commas are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk, and dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray.


Justin Mallone at 4:26 AM on October 12, 2020 | #18299 | reply | quote

there's no disagreement here re comma vs. paren. you should think it through more.


curi at 11:13 AM on October 12, 2020 | #18300 | reply | quote

I actually thought about whether I was making some error before I posted my initial comment, and I reflected on it a bit, but I couldn't quite see an error, so I sent it anyways. I could have perhaps labeled the part about the disagreement as low confidence or something. I have been trying that sort of thing on my blog some (labels for low confidence) but it's still not something I've internalized to the point where it automatically comes to mind.

I thought about the issue some more, and wrote something about it, but I didn't find what I wrote particularly helpful or illuminating (was worth trying anyways. Writing stuff down often helps and makes stuff clearer).


Justin Mallone at 1:43 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18301 | reply | quote

The first step would be to write the (claimed) contradiction clearly using full sentences. You haven't written any clear version of your claim.


curi at 1:56 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18302 | reply | quote

I was getting stuck trying to formulate the (alleged) issue clearly. To get unstuck, I tried relistening to some relevant Peikoff audio to get unstuck. I think this was helpful. Here's a bit I transcribed from Lecture 6. Peikoff:

> So the norm is commas. The big emphasis is dashes. The other direction, the least emphasis is parentheses.


> [Speaking of parentheses] Now those marks, those two round marks, tell the reader in effect, this idea is very very loosely connected to what I'm saying. It's really off the point, it's barely connected, just enough to make it into the sentence.

So according to LP, parentheses have the least emphasis and most strongly indicate that the comment is tangential to the rest of what the sentence is talking about.

I think I read this ET quote:

> Commas often go around optional or inessential parts of sentences, including non-restrictive modifiers. They're sorta like a weaker or milder version of parentheses.

... as speaking to some attribute of parentheses other than the degree to which they indicate something is a tangent or side comment.

Earlier I said:

> I interpret ET as saying that commas are "weaker" in terms of setting things aside.

But what does "in terms of setting things aside" actually mean?

Setting things aside grammatically - as in, separating some section from the core grammar of the sentence?

Setting things aside as being tangents?

Setting things aside as particularly important?

"in terms of setting things aside" is quite vague, and I think I was confused about what I exactly meant, and had 2 or maybe even 3 things in mind at the same time, and so that was a huge mess. So I think that particular conceptual vagueness was the primary cause of my error.

If I read the part of your quote regarding commas being "a weaker or milder version of parentheses" as indicating that commas are weaker than parentheses *in terms of indicating that something is a tangent/side-issue*, then your quote and what Peikoff says above are totally compatible.

I initially brought up LP talking about the relative emphasis indicated by different marks. But the amount of emphasis or weight that some punctuation marks indicate is a *different attribute* than the degree to which punctuation marks indicate that something is a tangent. I think not separating out the different attributes of things is part of where I was getting lost.

I withdraw my claim that there is a contradiction here. Thanks for your help.


Anonymous at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2020 | #18304 | reply | quote

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