Commas clarify meaning and set sentence pace for readers by helping to denote timing, emphasis, and clarity. While comma rules can be confusing, below are some common uses and examples for the punctuation.
Use commas to separate items in a list. Include commas after the first and subsequent items in the list until you reach the second to last item. This last comma is referred to as the Oxford Comma, and while some will identify it as an optional style (mostly in Journalism), The Learning Hub advocates for it as a mandatory punctuation mark in both academic and civic writing. Whichever method you are using, remember the most important rule: maintain consistency!
Current members of The Rolling Stones include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood. “Brown Sugar,” “Factory Girl,” and “Break the Spell” are popular songs among the band’s discography.
Tip: The Oxford Comma helps separate and clarify items in a list which can be unclear without proper separation.
With: Mick thanks his parents, Keith, and Charlie for his continued success.
Without: Mick thanks his parents, Keith and Charlie for his continued success.
Note: In the second example, the sentence is telling us that Keith and Charlie are Mick’s parents, which isn’t true.
Beginning a sentence with a list is not an ideal sentence construction, but make sure you do not add another comma after a list that begins a sentence.
Inappropriate: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood, are current members of The Rolling Stones.
Appropriate: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood are current members of The Rolling Stones.
Use commas to offset introductory phrases, transitional phrases, and prepositional phrases when they begin a sentence.
Since their first gig in 1962, The Rolling Stones have been touring and recording albums for five decades.
In addition to their own work, the band has collaborated on numerous projects with other musicians and artists.
Offsetting Introductory Subordinate Clauses
Do not use a comma to introduce a subordinate clause if it is embedded in the sentence. If the subordinate clause is used at the beginning of the sentence, a comma is required.
Unnecessary: The Rolling Stones remains a popular band because they have continued to release new music.
Necessary: Because of their own aspirations, members of the band have also worked on solo music projects.
Offsetting Mid-Sentence Phrases/Clauses
Use commas on either side of a phrase or clause appearing in the middle of a sentence, including non-essential phrases (appositives), prepositional phrases, transitional phrases, etc. Note that if a non-essential phrase appears in a sentence, it must be paired with an essential clause to complete the sentence. See our Clauses and Phrases handout for more information.
Example: The band’s first concert date, July 12, was at the Marquee Club in London.
Tip: For narrative writing, use commas to set off unnecessary information, such as thoughts and asides, typical of what a narrator in a story might say.
Example: How lucky we are, Mick thought to himself, to have such a great crowd of adoring fans.
Example: Keith, feeling the energy of the crowd, hit the opening note of the sold-out show.
Separating Coordinate Modifiers
Use commas to separate coordinate modifiers (descriptive modifiers of equal rank). To determine whether modifiers are coordinate or not, insert “and” between them. If the sentence still makes sense, the comma is required.
Coordinate: The Rolling Stones are known for classic, timeless hits and selling out stadiums for their performances.
Not Coordinate: The band became popular in the 1960s because the members refused to wear formal Tom Ford suits.
Offsetting Participial Phrases
Use commas to set off participial phrases that modify part of an independent clause.
Example: Having met in primary school, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards later reunited to form The Rolling Stones.
Example: Stunned by their success, the band initially wondered if they would experience only limited popularity.
Before Coordinating Conjunctions
Use commas to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. The common coordinating conjunctions include for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (remember them by the mnemonic “FANBOYS”).
Example: The band continues to collaborate, but they are releasing fewer albums as the members age.
Example: The Rolling Stones have toured across the world, and they have sold millions of copies of their albums.
Dialogue can be tricky, but follow these guidelines and you should be successful:
Use commas when interrupting a line of dialogue with a descriptive phrase.
Example: “Popular music,” Jagger reflects, “became bigger than it ever had before.”
Use commas to separate a line of dialogue from a descriptive phrase.
Example: “We were flying by the seat of our pants,” Richards asserts.
NOTE: Do not use a comma to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. This creates a run-on sentence.
Inappropriate: The band works hard, they write legendary music.
Appropriate: The band works hard, and they write legendary music.
See our handout on Comma Splices for more information.
**All information on this handout comes from Rolling Stones’ website