Writing Tip

Hey, you! Let’s talk about commas, shall we? 

A Writing Tip by Sara Hall 


Commas are a fundamental part of sentence structure and are typically used when there is a shift within a sentence between thoughts. Some instances where you will need to use commas are: 

  1. Before a FANBOYS word 
  2. After an introductory clause such as “Therefore,” “So,” “In addition,” etc. 
  3. When there is a comma splice 
  4. When you have an “if, then” clause 
  5. During a list of 3 or more words 

FANBOYS: This is an acronym that stands for: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. In most cases (and I must emphasize “most”) you will put a comma before these words when they act as a transition word in a sentence. Sometimes the word “and” does not need a comma before it, and whenever “so” is at the start of a sentence, the comma goes after it, because in that case it is an introductory clause. 

INTRODUCTORY CLAUSE: As seen in the examples above, this is a case where you open a sentence with a transition word or phrase that sets the “tone” or “place” of the information to come. 

NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSES (also known as a nonessential clause): A type of adjective clause that provides additional information about a word whose meaning is already clear. Nonrestrictive clauses often begin with the word which and are always set off with commas. 

Minneapolis, which has a population of about 400,000, is the largest city in Minnesota.

The middle part is set away from the rest because it is extra information, but better helps you to understand the subject of the sentence: Minneapolis. A trick to know that you need to use the offsetting commas is if you can read the first and last parts of the sentence without the middle. For example: 

Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota. 

As you can see, this sentence still makes sense without the middle part, as it is not imperitive to the sentence's meaning. 

“IF, THEN” CLAUSE: An “if, then” clause is a sentence with two parts: one that is the cause, and the other that is the effect. A comma will separate the parts. Some examples are: 

If you do your homework now, you will have time to read later. 

Because Harry and Hermione used the time-turner, they were able to save Sirius Black. 

Since we ran out of food, we had to go to the grocery store. 

LISTS OF 3 OR MORE WORDS: Most languages don’t use the oxford comma, including Spanish and British English. American English, however, does. This is a comma that comes before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list. You need this when you have a list of three or more things – as well as between the rest of the words listed. For example: 

We went to the store and bought bread, eggs, and milk. 

ONE LAST TIP: A helpful way to figure out if you need a comma is to read your work aloud, at a normal pace, and see where you pause naturally. Your brain will know! Trust it!