Punctuation – The general use of commas

Although the use of commas might appear to be a small matter, in the context of a formal piece of writing they take on greater importance than normal. In this section we will look at the rules for their use.

1. We can use them to separate two independent clauses that are joined by words like andbutornorso etc.

The climb was hard and tiring, but the women were determined to get to the top.

The men packed up their bags and their tools, and the timber was put away.


  • The weather was bitterly cold. The woman’s car had broken down. She was far from a town.
  • The storm was severe. He didn’t expect to survive. Somehow he managed to survive.
  • It was a long walk to the next village. It was wet and cold. They hoped to arrive before dark.

2. We use commas to separate a dependent clause (introduced by words like as, becausesincewhenafterwhile etc.) from a main clause.

As it was still raining, the game was postponed. (dependent clause followed by main clause)

After retiring, he started to write his autobiography. (dependent clause followed by main clause)


  • She was exhausted. Her husband carried her rucksack.
  • She graduated in August. She’s been living and working in Geneva.
  • She had a headache. She stopped work for a while.

3. Commas are used before an afterthought, or after an introductory word or phrase.

She held her tongue that time, thankfully.

However, many writers (Smith 2001; Jones 2005) questioned this view.


  • Before I had time to think he had come back.
  • Nevertheless I’m confident that we’ll do better next year.
  • Despite the lack of positive evidence this approach has been proposed by several academics (Hughes 2003; Lucas 2006).

4. They are used to enclose an extra, inessential element that interrupts the flow of the sentence.

My brother was, in some ways, the cause of his own problems.

She was, as far as I could see, the most talented artist amongst them.


  • The car or rather the remains of the car rested at the foot of the cliff.
  • The shaky boxer once so fast and strong shuffled along the corridor.
  • The results based on this evidence strongly support Liu’s theory.

5. They are used where we use an appositive phrase (i.e. an appropriate phrase) or add further information about an individual or an object.

The fastest driver, Jim Clarke, was first to pass the chequered flag.

John Stone, a living legend, was reduced to begging in the streets.


  • Ms Green the chairperson of the board refused to countenance the idea.
  • The winning ticket holder a poet from Ashdon used the money to buy a new computer.
  • The data collected by Ashworth the foremost expert in this area did not support the theory put forward by the research study.

6. To separate elements in a list.

The refugee group was composed of people from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia.


  • He lives in Paris shops in London and holidays in Spain.
  • It takes a long time to plan draft rewrite revise and finally to present a good essay.
  • The research study collected the data analysed using the chi-squared formula and applied it universally.

7. After time phrases

At 2 o’clock, I got up and left.

At exactly midnight, she left the dance.

By 2006, the evidence was overwhelming.

By the time of his retirement, he had established an unchallenged reputation in this area.

8. To balance contrasting phrases

She might change her car, but never the colour.

He might look, but he won’t be able to touch.

The analysis was carefully conducted, but the result was the same.

The same data was re-entered and analysed in a variety of different ways in the hope of finding a contrast but the results were the same.

9. In direct speech

“It’s very cold,” she exclaimed.

“I’ll always love you,” he said.

The crowd waved their fists and cried, “No surrender!”

The candidate stood up and said, “Ladies and gentlemen! I’m asking for

your support!”

10. To avoid ambiguity.

As well as the hammering, rain was also falling noisily.

Outside, the car park was full.

I’m sick, and tired of reading this book.

I’m hot, and bothered about what to do with the children.

11. To show that words have been left out:

Cooked food is preferred by the majority; fresh food, by a minority.

Car travel is the preferred option; train and bus, the main alternatives.

Abstinence is encouraged; drunkenness, abhorred.

A hat is accepted; a full headscarf, preferred.