The Easiest Way to Learn How to Use a Comma

by TutorPhil

A comma (,) is one of the two most commonly used punctuation marks (along with a period). It is also a source of a lot of frustration for the graders of essays and term papers. Why?

  • A skipped comma may mean that the writer is in a rush
  • A comma used in a wrong way may change the meaning of a sentence (sometimes to the opposite)
  • Using the comma incorrectly multiple times in an essay will make you come across as lazy or incompetent and will drive your grade down
  • Professors and instructors have very little patience for the misuse of the comma – trust me, I know

So, why not spend a couple of minutes and make friends with the comma – hey, if you take care of the comma, the comma will take care of you.  :)

So, in this blog post, we’ll learn how to stop skipping commas.

You see, a comma is an equivalent of a pause in human speech. Please read the following sentence aloud:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and when we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Now did you feel something strange as you were reading it? What felt not quite right?

You see, if this were a sentence that someone uttered to you on the street, and it was uttered just the way you just read it, it would feel like this person is in a rush to get somewhere, but just has to say something long and important to you on his way without even stopping to hear your reply. And why does it read that way?

It is because this person hasn’t paused once while uttering this sentence. Read it again (and make sure you read aloud), and you’ll notice it this time.

Please note also that the only thing that saves this sentence from being a run-on sentence is the word ‘and.’ But I’ll show you how to get rid of run-on sentences in a future post. In the mean time, let’s take a closer look at the sentence. It really contains two separate sentences:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise.

When we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Now, to the credit of the writer, I must say that although these two sentences can be written separately, they really belong together because they are parts of the same thought.

So, let’s read the first sentence aloud again:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise.

Did you naturally want to pause anywhere? No – it’s a pretty simple sentence.

Let’s read the second one aloud:

When we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Did you naturally feel a need to pause at any time while reading this one?

Well, I hope you discovered that you did. This part of the sentence – “When we are physically fit” – is called an introductory phrase. This simply means that this phrase makes the person uttering it to pause naturally right after it before continuing with the rest of the sentence.

Try saying it without rushing, and you’ll hear yourself pausing right after the word ‘fit.’ No, really, try it.

Can you hear it? Can you hear yourself pause after saying “When we are physically fit?”

Good. Now, here’s a rule that should be easy to follow now that you understand the connection between a pause in speech and a comma in writing:

Always put a comma after an introductory phrase, because this is the way people speak.

So, let’s get back to the original long sentence:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and when we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Since we know that we should put a comma after the introductory phrase, let’s do it:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Now that our introductory phrase has become a part of a longer sentence and is preceded by a full sentence as well, it has become a parenthetical expression. You may think of it as simply an introductory phrase that introduces the second part of a longer sentence.

And what does ‘parenthetical‘ mean? It means that this part of the sentence could be included in parentheses but, instead, we simply must place a comma before and after the phrase. So, let’s do that as well:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and, when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.

So, let’s read the sentence aloud (yes, aloud one more time), this time pausing at every comma. I hope you’ll see the improvement in the way the sentence sounds.

Did you hear the difference this time?

I hope you now see the difference between:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and when we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

And

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and, when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.

So, here’s your takeaway from today’s lesson:

  • A comma in writing is like a pause in speech
  • When writing a long sentence, read it aloud, check it for natural pauses, and place a comma or two, if necessary. Then, read again for proof.
  • If you do this regularly, you’ll develop a sense for using the comma
  • Your sentences will become more elegant and mature, and your grades will go up as a result

Questions? Post one as a comment.

Tutor Phil

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

veterinary technician July 29, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

Reply

TutorPhil July 29, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Hey – thanks.
I will.

Tutor Phil

Reply

nehak July 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

great work tutorphil, simple and very easy to understand this is the best part of all your blogs and suggestions, they are very simple and easy to understand. Well, have made some corrections regarding the comma but still, am not confident that i can use it wherever it is required. Still at times unable to judge. You please check and correct me.
thank you so much, i really like this site and fora change i enjoy my homework as well.

Reply

nehak July 30, 2010 at 10:40 am

“World of bookworms is gone, now people appreciate those who are all rounder”. Yes, i so believe that university should give same amount of money to sports as they give for library.The reason behind this is first, sports being an equally important part for some student as books. Second, sports is the best physical exercise. And finally third, it improves our personality. Now lets discuss it in detail.

First and foremost reason why sports should be encouraged in schools and university, is the increasing demand of sports among students. Not every student is too much into books. There are students who are enthusiastic about sports, and want to make there career in sports, for such students good sports facility is as important as library for the academically inclined students.Hence, university should have cutting edge sports facilities, which means, same amount of money for sports as they give for library.

Sports is also considered to be a very good physical exercise, and when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases. Studies all the time, no doubt will improve the grades but it will make life monotonous and dull. It mite make you mentally strong, but physically you cannot stay fit, until and unless you do some exercise. Sports being the best among all. It relaxes your mind and muscles, improves the blood circulation, strengthens and improves the muscle tone, and makes your body flexible and fit. It also improves the stamina remarkably, hence should be encouraged in schools and colleges.

Finally, sports also grooms your personality. Student come across other team members, and learns how to play in a team, sportsmanship and leadership skills also comes naturally that way. Student learn other important things like, how to face victory and defeat, commitment towards work etc. Hence, these things are further helpful in classroom outside classroom and even at home. Wherever the child goes he carries these qualities for lifelong.

In conclusion, i would say that universities should give same money for sports as they give for library. That is the only way they can attract and encourage students to join sports. Further, which can improve physical fitness and personality of an individual.Hence, sports and library should be made indispensable like the two sides of a coin.

Reply

TutorPhil August 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

Hi, Nehak.

Sometimes it takes me a bit longer to respond – don’t panic. :)
You’re doing a great job, and I’m proud of your desire to learn.

Now, here’s a short and fun homework assignment for you:
The following passage, which I extracted from your essay, contains a comma that should be a period and a period that should be a comma. Can you identify and correct those? Here’s the passage:

First and foremost reason why sports should be encouraged in schools and university, is the increasing demand of sports among students. Not every student is too much into books. There are students who are enthusiastic about sports, and want to make there career in sports, for such students good sports facility is as important as library for the academically inclined students.Hence, university should have cutting edge sports facilities, which means, same amount of money for sports as they give for library.

Sports is also considered to be a very good physical exercise, and when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases. Studies all the time, no doubt will improve the grades but it will make life monotonous and dull. It mite make you mentally strong, but physically you cannot stay fit, until and unless you do some exercise. Sports being the best among all. It relaxes your mind and muscles, improves the blood circulation, strengthens and improves the muscle tone, and makes your body flexible and fit. It also improves the stamina remarkably, hence should be encouraged in schools and colleges.

Try your best; post it here; and we’ll go over it.

P.S. There are other types of mistakes in your essay, but it’s a good idea to take them one or two at a time. Keep up the good work.

Reply

remula August 3, 2010 at 10:15 am

Sorry, I didn’t understand why you put coma in after and. Usually it is put in front of and. Could you explain to me the difference?

best regards

Reply

TutorPhil August 4, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Okay, let’s look at the sentence again (without the commas):

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and when we are physically fit the probability of mental fitness also increases.

This sentence contains a parenthetical expression:

when we are physically fit

It is called a parenthetical expression because it could be included within a pair of parentheses. Instead, it is included within two commas. One way to identify a parenthetical expression is to remove it from the sentence and see if the sentence still works:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Does it work? Yes, it does. So, here are two rules:

1. If a sentence contains a parenthetical expression, it must be included in between commas:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise and, when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Note that the word AND is not part of this expression. Therefore, it is not included in between the commas.

2. If there is no parenthetical expression, put the comma before AND:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise, and the probability of mental fitness also increases.

Hope this helps. Stop by again.

Tutor Phil

Reply

Remula September 8, 2010 at 3:48 am

Thanks

Now it’s clear :)

nehak August 4, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Hello sir, please check this question and tell me how to write an essay on this..
Many people believe that it is very important to make large amount of money, while others are satisfied to have a comfortable life.Analyze each view point and take a stand. Give specific reason for your position.
We need to discuss both the view points in this?

Reply

TutorPhil August 7, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Nehak,

First, yes – you need to discuss both viewpoints, which means that this will be a comparison essay.
At the same time, the question asks you to make a stand. This means that you should not simply compare the two viewpoints, but you should choose which one you agree with, and then support your point of view against the other one.
In order to do this, just trust yourself and ask yourself a question: “What do I really think? Which way of life is better?”
Be honest with yourself – nobody will judge you if you are sincere (and if they do – who cares, right?). So, here are the steps:
1. Decide which side you are on.
2. Ask yourself why you are taking that side – there must be a reason or two (or three – even better).

Once you’ve done this, don’t write the whole essay – just write the thesis statement and post it under the blog post How to Write a Thesis Statement, okay?
We’ll take it from there.

P.S. Here’s a link to one of my articles How to Begin Writing an Essay. Read it – it should help.

Reply

nehak August 4, 2010 at 1:16 pm

First and foremost reason, why sports should be encouraged in schools and university is the increasing demand of sports among students. Not every student is too much into books. There are students who are enthusiastic about sports, and want to make there career in sports. For such students good sports facility is as important as library for the academically inclined students. Hence, university should have cutting edge sports facilities. Which means, same amount of money for sports as they give for library.

Sports is also considered to be a very good physical exercise. When we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases. Studies all the time no doubt will improve the grades but it will make life monotonous and dull. It mite make you mentally strong, but physically you cannot stay fit, until and unless you do some exercise. Sports being the best among all. It relaxes your mind and muscles, improves the blood circulation, strengthens and improves the muscle tone, and makes your body flexible and fit. It also improves the stamina remarkably. Hence, should be encouraged in schools and colleges.

Reply

TutorPhil August 6, 2010 at 3:50 pm

First of all – great job, Nehak! You identified the comma that should be a period:

There are students who are enthusiastic about sports, and want to make there career in sports [.] For such students good sports facility is as important as library for the academically inclined students.

Nice!

Now, let’s take the rest of it sentence by sentence:

First and foremost reason, why sports should be encouraged in schools and university is the increasing demand of sports among students.

Why did you put a comma after the word reason? Do you naturally pause there when you speak the sentence? I don’t think so. Try to say it out loud. This comma is NOT NEEDED here. Let’s keep moving:

For such students good sports facility is as important as library for the academically inclined students. Hence, university should have cutting edge sports facilities.

No punctuation problems here. Nice work. Moving on:

Which means, same amount of money for sports as they give for library.

Why a comma after means? No reason for a comma here, either. No natural pause in speech, either. Moving on:

Sports is also considered to be a very good physical exercise. When we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases. Studies all the time no doubt will improve the grades but it will make life monotonous and dull.

Nice work here – no punctuation errors. Note that When we are physically fit is an introductory phrase. Nice. Moving on:

It mite make you mentally strong, but physically you cannot stay fit, until and unless you do some exercise. Sports being the best among all.

The comma after fit is unnecessary. What about the period after exercise? I think I’ll put up a post about sentence fragments next on my blog to deal with this sentence (yes, this is all one sentence, even though you broke it into two with a period). Moving on:

It relaxes your mind and muscles, improves the blood circulation, strengthens and improves the muscle tone, and makes your body flexible and fit.

Wow! What a beautiful sentence! Not a single error among all the punctuation marks. Great work! I love the way you use AND in this sentence a couple of times and always correctly with respect to sentence structure and punctuation. Next sentence:

It also improves the stamina remarkably.

Very good sentence – nice, clean, and simple. You should write more of such sentences just to keep it simple and improve your feel for what a complete sentence is. Moving on:

Hence, should be encouraged in schools and colleges.

This one above is another sentence fragment. Here’s How to Deal with Sentence Fragments.

Tutor Phil

Reply

Vin August 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

thanks tutor phil!

I never understood why in some sentences the comma would come after the AND: I always thought you had to put a comma before a conjunction if you wanted to separate two independent clauses, but now i understand why that’s not always the case–thanks!

Also, could the sentence be written as follows?:

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise; when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.

cheers,

vin

Reply

TutorPhil August 18, 2010 at 10:13 am

Vin,

You definitely can write it like that. I would even probably use the colon – it can be used to signify the word ‘because.’

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise: when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.
Or I could even use the hyphen (I tend to like it, for some reason):

Sports is also considered to be very good physical exercise – when we are physically fit, the probability of mental fitness also increases.
All three ways, including yours, are acceptable. The hyphen version is the worst of these, really. They have slightly varying tones, perhaps, but that’s nothing to worry about and is a matter of preference.

Good work, Vin.

Reply

Remula October 7, 2010 at 7:05 am

Hi, Tutor Phil

I would like you to explain the usage of a coma with even:
He nerver shouts, even when he is angry – is clear.
He always wears a coat – even in hot weathers – isn’t clear. Can I use here a coma instead of the dash? What is the difference?
I think proficiency in psychology will influence all spheres of my life, and even, impact my close relatives’ lives – isn’t clear. Why should I write the coma after even?
Please, help me.

Thanks a lot

Reply

TutorPhil October 10, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Remula,

He always wears a coat – even in hot weathers. – You may use either a comma or a dash here. It’s pretty much the same. You won’t feel the difference if you read it both ways.

I think proficiency in psychology will influence all spheres of my life, and even, impact my close relatives’ lives. – the comma after even is wrong. No comma there.

Phil

Reply

Nancy September 3, 2013 at 10:02 am

I’m undecided as to if I should/shouldn’t use a comma in my questionable sentence.. Note: The quotes that I’ve placed around the sentence, will not be a part of the sentence that I’m putting down on paper; “Please respect my right to decide what’s best for me.”

QUESTION: Should a comma be placed inbetween the words “right” and “to”.

Thanking you in advance, for answering my question. Sincerely, Nancy

Reply

TutorPhil September 3, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Hi Nancy,

No – no comma needed there. The sentence works as is.

You can test it simply by pronouncing this part of the sentence: “my right to decide”

Why that part? Because it’s the direct object in your sentence. Do you feel you should pause after “right?” Not really.

Cheers :)

TP

Reply

Nancy September 4, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Thank you for the answer to my question TP. I have to admit, even though I passed English when I attended school back in the 50′s, I never was very good at it. Sincerely, Nancy

Reply

TutorPhil September 4, 2013 at 8:42 pm

Well, now is your fresh new opportunity to learn these skills.

Good luck and ask away when you need me.

TP

Reply

TutorPhil September 8, 2010 at 6:15 am

Always welcome, Remula.

Reply

Remula September 8, 2010 at 6:59 am

I want your help with semi. Could you explain where I should use it. For example, why should I put a semi in this sentence: “The question is; whether we should make them alone or consult with other people”?

Best regards

Reply

TutorPhil September 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm

No semi needed here:

“The question is whether we should make them alone or consult with other people.”

No question mark, either – this is not a question – this is a statement.

Here’s a nice breakdown of How to Use a Semicolon.

Reply

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