One of the reasons that commas are confusing for English learners is that there are four different types of commas: The listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma, and bracketing commas.
The listing comma
The listing comma is used instead of the words and/or within a list of three or more words, phrases or complete sentences.
- The actor was tall, dark and handsome.
- The German language is spoken in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
- Maria speaks Italian, Marco speaks Spanish, Francesca speaks Portuguese and Sam speaks English.
- You can use green, blue or black paint for that wall.
In each of these sentences we could replace the commas with and/or. Listing commas make the sentences look neater and they help the reader to follow your meaning.
In American English, The Oxford comma is common. This means to use a comma followed by the word and in a list. This is not as common in British English.
- The secretary gave me her boss’s name, email address and telephone number. BrE
- The secretary gave me her boss’s name, email address, and telephone number. AmE
You might find a comma before and in British English if the meaning would be unclear without it:
- I have bought items from Topshop, River Island, and Marks and Spencer this morning.
The comma is required here to show that Marks and Spencer is one shop. The total amount of shops that person visited is three, not four.
The listing comma is also used to separate several modifiers which all modify the same noun.
- This is a beautiful, quaint, welcoming village.
- She had a soft, whispering, mystical voice.
The modifiers in the sentences are all modifying the noun at the end. Just as before, you could separate these with and instead of a listing comma.
What if the modifiers aren’t all modifying the same thing?
- She loves to read American crime novels.
- Maria lost her antique engagement ring.
There are no commas in these sentences because you cannot separate the modifiers with and/or. This is because the modifiers are not modifying the same thing.
The joining comma.
This is really similar to the listing comma. It is used to merge two complete sentences into one. It must be followed by and, or, but, while, yet.
- Everybody saw the man fall over. Nobody helped him up.
- Everybody saw the man fall over, yet nobody helped him up.
- All the neighbours have painted their houses. You must do the same.
- All the neighbours have painted their houses, and you must do the same.
This shows that the two sentences are directly related to each other. The second sentence in each example would not make sense without the first sentence, and the linking word is required to make the connection grammatically correct.
The gapping comma.
We often omit words in English because they are redundant. Therefore, we use a gapping comma in place of the repeated words.
- Some people hate Justin Bieber because he is arrogant; others hate him because his songs are terrible.
- Some people hate Justin Bieber because he is arrogant; others, because his songs are terrible.
We don’t need to repeat the hate him part as it has already occurred in the first clause, so a gapping comma takes its place. It is not always necessary to use gapping commas if the meaning is clear without them, so use your discretion.
Sometimes called isolating commas, they are used when adding a piece of information, otherwise known as a weak interruption, to a main sentence. The weak interruption could be removed and still leave a complete sentence. There is an example of this in the paragraph you have just read.
When found in the middle of a sentence, this weak interruption is surrounded by two commas. These are easy to spot.
- During the rainy days in England, of which there are many, it’s lovely to sit inside where it is warm and cosy.
I could remove the weak interruption and leave a complete sentence behind:
- During the rainy days in England it’s lovely to sit inside where it is warm and cosy.
Now you can see why they are called bracketing commas, because it is often tempting to replace them with brackets. If you are not sure where to position your bracketing commas, try to remove the whole clause. If the sentence makes sense without the clause, you have put them in the correct position.
When this clause is found at the beginning or at the end of a sentence only one bracketing comma exists separating it from the main sentence. This is harder to recognise.
- All things considered, the final result was positive.
- The final result was positive, all things considered.
The same rule applies. You can remove the weak interruption, in this case all things considered, and be left with a complete sentence.
Some words are often found at the start of a weak interruption. These are although, though, even though, because, since, after, before, if, when and whenever.
Exercise: Add any missing commas to the following sentences
- The twins are very different. Sam has blonde hair while John has brown.
- To bake the cake we need eggs flour sugar and milk.
- The teacher I believe explained the rules clearly.
- I bought books from Waterstones WH Smith and Barnes and Noble.
Post your answers in the comments below. Alternatively, you can send me a direct message by going to your Intrepid English Profile, clicking the Messages icon and typing in ‘Lorraine’.
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This blog was written by Intrepid English Teacher and Founder, Lorraine.
Find out more about Lorraine on her Intrepid English Teacher profile page.
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