How to use a comma

It’s amazing how much difference one teeny, tiny comma can make. Here at topcorrect, we’re sure a lot of you may be familiar with the following meme, which has been doing the rounds on social media for some time now:

How to use a comma topcorrect blog

Knowing how to use a comma in English is essential as using one can dramatically change the meaning.

As the above example shows, a small punctuation mark can make a big difference to the meaning of a sentence. So like it or not, knowing how to use a comma can make a big impact on your writing and when utilised correctly, a comma can be a very powerful writing tool.

Of course, there is not just one use for a comma, so here at topcorrect, we’ve been kind enough to compile a list of the many ways of how to use a comma:


If you have a series of three or more items in a list, each separate component, even the last two, needs to be divided with a comma:

“She bought some apples, some cereal, and a pint of milk.”

You may have learnt that the last comma, separating the cereal and the pint of milk, is not essential. Generally, omitting the comma for the last element is OK. However, if the list is long and complicated, the last two components could be interpreted as belonging together, instead of two separate elements, ie.,

“Macaroni and cheese” “macaroni, and cheese”.

See how it changes the meaning? The former example is the infamous all-American dish mac’n’cheese and the latter are two separate ingredients – macaroni pasta, and cheese.

In the case of the latter example, avoid ambiguity and use the comma for the last component, which is known as the serial or Oxford comma.


Complementary adjectives

Like with the above example of using lists, if two or more adjectives feature in front of a noun, a comma may need to be used to separate the adjectives.

The old, dilapidated house belonged to Mrs Brown.

The tall, handsome man entered the room.

The rule to find out whether to separate the adjectives or not with a comma is the “and or but” rule. If you can picture putting and or but between the adjectives, you need to use a comma, like the above examples demonstrate. If, for example, your two adjectives are little and old, it doesn’t sound right, so in the following example, you don’t need to use a comma:

The little old lady crossed the street.


Joining clauses

If a sentence contains two or more independent clauses, often linked with the use of a connective such as “and” “but” “so” “nor” “or” “yet” etc., it needs a comma.

Eg. He said he didn’t need anything, but you could tell he wanted some help.

They didn’t like each other initially, however they slowly realised they had a lot in common.

He ran for the bus, but he missed it.

Whilst sentences with two short independent clauses, like the last example, can leave out the comma, if there is any ambiguity or doubt, it’s best to include a comma. That way, you help reading fluency and you can present your ideas in a coherent and clear form.


Introductory phrases

Using an introductory phrase to introduce a new sentence or phrase such as an adverb often requires a comma.

“Although he was hot, he refused to take off his coat.”

“First and foremost, we need to address its origins.”

“Sadly, my grandpa couldn’t come.”

Like with the example of linking clauses with a comma, if the two separate clauses are short enough, the comma is often unnecessary. However, if it causes any ambiguity, it’s best to keep the comma in.



When referring to direct speech, a comma needs to be placed before the quotation to introduce it.

Danny said, “Let’s go to the pool.”

Hamlet’s soliloquy is one of the most famous of all time, “To be or not to be – that it is the question.”

The comma simply separates the text from the quoted speech and it helps to present the quotation in a clear way.


Addressing someone

When getting someone’s attention in written English, a comma must be used. That’s why it’s so important to use a comma as the first example of the difference between, “Let’s eat grandma” and, “Let’s eat, grandma” shows how the meaning is dramatically changed with or without the comma.

Here are some other examples:

“You, sir, are unfit to drive.”

“Why don’t you understand, Jenny, that I’m not like that?”

The comma draws attention the object in the sentence and separates them from the rest of the clause to avoid any confusion.


Extra Information

A clause which adds a detail to the sentence, but would not change the meaning if removed, needs a comma.

An example of a clause adding more detail to a sentence are relative clauses which begin with which, who/whose/whom and where.

The young girl, whose mother had gone to the shops, wandered off.

Elizabeth, who had just come back from France, went travelling for a year.

For more information on comma usage, check out this video, which goes through all the different comma uses.


Whilst a comma may appear a tiny detail, knowing how to use a comma is vital when writing or editing English. If you bear the above examples in mind next time round, you’ll find your writing is more structured, comprehensible and clearer. Never underestimate the power of a comma, it will come in handy time and time again.

Still confused? Why not enlist the services of topcorrect to help you out with those pesky commas?

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