Comma Conundrums

The humble comma seems to baffle many. Space doesn’t permit full discussion of the subject (you may be relieved to hear), but here are some pointers.

If you’ve ever read a contract or a will drafted by an English solicitor, you’ll have noticed the complete lack of commas (omitted because they can be the source of ambiguity or error, as the cases attest*). Read that English document aloud, and you’ll be left breathless: no pauses.

The basic rule is that a comma should be inserted wherever there is a natural pause for the reader. Don’t overdo it, though: too many commas make things choppy. Lawyerly writing definitely suffers from excessive use of commas.

Use a comma to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet): The plaintiff was severely injured in the accident, but the limitation period has now expired.

Use a comma to set off information that is useful but non-essential or in some way extra (it could be removed and the sentence would still make sense): The comma is, of course, a useful thing or The plaintiff, who has suffered multiple injuries, is unable to perform basic tasks.

Separate items in a list with a comma (or a semi-colon, if individual items within the list contain internal commas).

But, you ask, is there a comma (sometimes called a ‘serial’ or  ‘Oxford’ comma) before the ‘and’ (or ‘or’) preceding the final item in the list? In the USA, generally; in the UK, generally not. Take your pick, but I tend (as in most things) to go with the Brits. That final comma looks fussy and a bit cluttered.

Sometimes it’s useful, though. This sentence could use a second comma, methinks: This book is dedicated to my parents, Margaret Thatcher and God. Ambiguities could also arise where a list is longer and more complicated.

The comma defines and limits. I asked my brother Ed for help and I asked my brother, Ed, for help mean different things. The first means I have brothers other than Ed; the second, only one brother, and he’s called Ed.

Commas are also used to separate multiple adjectives describing a noun: She drove a little, red Corvette. The comma drops out, however, if the final adjective is an integral part of the noun that follows: The birdwatcher spotted a beautiful bald eagle (unless it was lovely and had no feathers on its head).

Don’t separate what should not be separated – like subject and verb, or verb and object/complement. This is wrong: The thing is, that … [worse: adding another is before that]. And so is this: Many Somalis have termed the 2015 election, historic (from, 25 October 2015; the comma must go).

The comma does connect, but beware the run-on sentence, which (incorrectly) splices two independent sentences with a comma. Don’t do this: I am sending you this article, I thought you would find it interesting. Instead of that comma, you need a semi-colon, a period or a word like ‘because’.

This is correct: He said, “I disagree”, and then went on to add, “but I won’t argue the point with you.” Use a comma before quoted speech (or a colon, although that wouldn’t work in the example just given because of the structure of the remaining part of the sentence). Put punctuation outside the quotation marks unless it’s actually part of the quotation (the final period is, the comma after ‘disagree’ may or may not be). In the USA, it’s usual to put all punctuation inside the quotation marks, but this is not desirable.

Next: colons and semi-colons

*Some expensive comma cases:

Osmium Shipping Corp v Cargill International SA, [2012] EWHC 571 (Comm)

Telecom Decision CRTC 2006-45

AMJ Campbell Inc v Kord Products Inc (2003) 63 OR (3d) 375

Coyote Portable Storage LLC v PODS Enterprises Inc (2011) 85 Fed R Ev Serv 459, 2011 WL 1870593

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. One suspects that more confusion – and litigation – is caused by the difficulty of reading unpunctuated text than by the occasional misplaced comma.

  2. Wasn’t there also an English case about “The poor schmuck who was hanged by a comma?”

  3. One of the greatest myths of punctuation is that one puts in a comma where one pauses. This is dangerous advice, made even more dangerous by a generality that one should not overdo it. Although Canadians are caught between American and British punctuation patterns, the vastly superior pattern is the American pattern–based on grammatical structure. If someone is having problems with commas, he or she is well advised to buy a copy of “The Gregg Reference Manual” an read the section on commas.

  4. This is great, Neil! One addition/ clarification: In the U.S., although it’s true that commas and periods go inside quotation marks, semicolons and colons never do, and question marks do only when what is quoted is itself a question. (The British English approach is admittedly more manageable and sensible.)

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