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Restrictive or Not—When Do Clauses Need Commas?

September 17, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 1, 2014

Fairly frequently I’ll get questions about comma use. I’ve not yet addressed the use of commas with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, so we’ll look at that issue in this article.

When is a comma necessary and when can it be dropped?

What are restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses and what do they have to do with commas?

What about nonessential phrases?

And what’s an appositive? It has something to do with commas too, right?

If you’re asking your questions this way, you probably learned the rules in school and are looking for a refresher. For those who have no idea what these questions are in reference to, let’s look at examples. You’ll recognize the concepts and the phrases, whether or not you know their fancy names or the rules. And don’t worry, it’s not the names that are important. It’s how you use the concepts and the commas that we care about.

For purposes of this discussion, restrictive and essential will be used interchangeably, as will nonrestrictive and nonessential. Essential and nonessential seem to make the explanations more understandable.

Let’s start with appositives.

My wife, Heidi, is a professional bowler.

Helga, my wife, is a professional baker.

My wife, a woman with no sense of fear, is a professional bomb tester.

My wife, the CFO of her company, reads spy novels by the bucketful.

A beautiful woman, my wife has learned to graciously accept compliments.

The words in blue are appositives. They are simply nouns or noun phrases that rename another noun.

They are set off by commas in these sentences not because they are appositives, though appositives are often set off by commas, but because the information they provide is nonessential. Nonessential appositives are set off from the rest of the sentence with commas.

A phrase, clause, or word is nonessential if the sentence makes sense and is complete without it. Nonessential phrases can be moved around in the sentence or cut from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense.  You can see that in each of the sentences above, removing the words in blue doesn’t create a nonsense sentence; the meaning is still clear.

But what about these sentences?

My wife Heidi is a professional bowler and my wife Helga is a baker.

My friend Corwin told me he’d cheated on his wife.

My best friend, Corwin, told me he’d cheated on his wife.

We’re still considering appositives, a renaming of the nouns, but this time the conditions are different, at least for the first two sentences.

The narrator of the first sentence apparently has (at least) two wives, and they practice different professions. The names in this sentence are essential to convey the full meaning of the sentence. Essential information is not separated out by commas.

In the second sentence, Corwin’s name is essential because presumably the narrator has several friends. It’s not likely that all confessed they’d cheated on their wives. Corwin’s name is essential information so the reader knows who is being spoken about.

When we’ve said my best friend, however, in the third sentence, Corwin’s name is nonessential. We’re not saying that the name is unimportant. We are saying that best friend, without the name, is sufficient to identify the cheater. It’s likely the narrator has only one best friend.

To help you remember whether a phrase or word needs to be surrounded by commas, try putting the phrase within commas and then taking that phrase or word out of the sentence. If the sentence is clear without it—and if it conveys sufficient information—then it’s nonessential and does need commas.

If the sentence makes little sense or is incomplete without the phrase, the words are essential and don’t get commas.

A quick test—

If you’re talking about an appositive and that appositive refers to one of a kind—a spouse, a best friend, or the greatest or worst of anything—then the appositive is nonessential and gets commas. (Just remember that spouses—my husband, Jasper, walks to work—get commas.)

But what of that last sentence in the first grouping? A beautiful woman, my wife has learned to graciously accept compliments. What about the appositive in that sentence?

As the sentence is written, the appositive (a beautiful woman) is set off by a comma. It doesn’t follow the noun, but comes before it. There’s no comma after wife because it’s just a noun, the subject of the sentence. No second comma is necessary unless the sentence is reworded—My wife, a beautiful woman, has graciously learned to accept compliments.

Note: For more confusion, some style guides are now recommending that short appositives should not be set off by commas. Until you know differently for a specific publisher or publication, include the commas.

________________________

Okay, that covers appositives. What about other words or phrases or clauses?

You’ll be relieved to know that the principle is the same. Essential phrases don’t get commas. Essential phrases are part of the foundation of the sentence and don’t need to be separated out in any way. Nonessentials can be plucked right out from between the commas. Essentials blend in; nonessentials (which can be taken out), stand out.

So, let’s look at some other circumstances when the essential/nonessential issue comes up.

That/Which

This is the one that causes a lot of confusion. And even when someone remembers the rule—which is preceded by a comma—the basis for the rule is often forgotten, making the use of both which and the comma unnecessary.

The rule—

That is used for essential phrases and which is used for nonessential. (At least this is true in American English. In British English, which is accepted for both essential and nonessential phrases, though that is always used only for essential.) Some American writers follow the British practice and mix and match their thats and whiches.

However, you cannot simply pair a comma with which and claim the sentence is written correctly. If, because of the intended meaning, the phrase should be an essential one that uses that and no comma, you can’t use which and a comma. Doing so changes the meaning of the sentence. So even if the form is right, the meaning may be wrong.

It’s not simply a choice between using that without a comma and which with a comma. It’s not an either/or option; depending on the intended meaning of your sentence, one option will be correct and the other will be wrong.

That is, the rules reflect the meaning of the sentence.

Have I confused you? Let’s look at examples.

He reached up to straighten the portrait that hung on the north wall.

I was ecstatic over the late snow that quickly reached the tops of the cars in the street.

—————–

He reached up to straighten the portrait, which had been knocked askew by the racing children.

I was ecstatic over the late snow, which piled up in the street and soon reached the tops of the cars.

The differences between the first sentences in each pair should be apparent.

The first sentence, with that and no comma, tells the reader that it is the portrait hanging on the north wall that’s being straightened. There may well be other portraits in the room, but not on the north wall. The information beginning with the word that is essential to identify which portrait is being discussed.

In the first sentence of the second set, the discussion is about one particular portrait. It may be the only one in the room or it may have already been singled out—it is the portrait. It has been identified. And it happens to have been knocked askew.

Thus with word choice and proper comma placement, the writer conveys very specific information.

How about the second sentences of each pair? This is a bit trickier. Not necessarily for the reader, who should pick up the nuances, but perhaps for the writer not sure how to write or punctuate what he needs to convey.

Let’s start with the second sentence first. It tells us that the narrator is ecstatic over the late snow. He then gives us more description of that snow, how it piled up in the street and reached over the tops of the cars. What’s important here, what’s essential, is the first part of the sentence. The second part, after the comma, is not essential to the thrust of the sentence. What’s essential is that the narrator is ecstatic over the late snow.

The comma and which tell us that what follows is nonessential. It may be interesting information, but the writer could have stopped the sentence at the comma and still have conveyed exactly what he needed to convey—I was ecstatic over the late snow.

The first sentence tells us there’s something essential in the information about how high the snow is going. It’s not only the snow that the narrator is ecstatic about. It’s the fact that it’s quickly covering the cars in the street. Cars won’t be able to move or maybe they won’t be able to be identified. Maybe one that’s out of place won’t be seen. Maybe the dent in the bumper or the body in the trunk won’t be noticed right away.

The possibilities will depend on the rest of the scene, but the way this is written lets the reader know there’s something more to the revelation than simple delight with snow; something’s going on. And the narrator is beyond pleased that the snow is, for the time being, hiding his secret from the world.

Again, we’ve got almost identical sentences, but the information presented is different. Punctuation and word choice do matter.

Note: Because so many writers have been encouraged to delete most uses of the word that, they sometimes use which when that is actually the proper and necessary word. It is okay to use that.

Who

The use of who gives us the same opportunities, in terms of both meaning and potential problems, that that and which give us.

Who is used in place of which when people, rather than things, are involved. The first problem is that who is also used in place of that when people are involved.

So who is the word used in both essential and nonessential phrases and clauses. The question, then, becomes one about comma use. But the rules are the same. Non-essential phrases get commas; essential phrases don’t.

Nonessential—

My youngest brother, who’s a Pisces, doesn’t know how to swim.

I’d hoped to contact the President, who had no personal cellphone, about opening an account for his family.

Matt told me about Amber, who’d been his girlfriend for eight years.

Essential—

The youngest is the brother who doesn’t know how to swim.

I gave my cellphone to the senator who dropped his in the toilet.

Amber was the girl who’d been Matt’s girlfriend for eight years.

 

Note: Who is not always preceded by a comma. I see commas thrown in before who in many essential phrases—if the word, phrase, or clause is needed to identify the person, that information is essential and is not separated out by commas.

 ________________________

Are there other phrases, phrases that don’t begin with that, which, or who, that can be essential or nonessential, depending on the meaning? Of course. And that means you need to choose the proper punctuation to fit your meaning.

Participial phrases are often nonessential and thus often require commas.

The school kids, hoping to get down the mountain before the storm broke over them, took cover when lightning arced around them.

But a sentence such as this, with the participial phrase as a modifier identifying which school kids took cover—essential information in this case—doesn’t require commas—

The school kids hoping to get down the mountain took cover when lightning arced around them.

Also, while most dependent clauses introduced by a subordinating conjunction (as,  after, although, because, once, until, when, while, etc.) that follow an independent clause are essential, some are nonessential and require commas. (See Commas with Subordinate Clauses.)

Alex stopped counting after twenty-five minutes.

Jane ran away, although her mother threatened her with punishment.

Tiny was six feet tall, whereas his brother was six seven.

The boys understood when I explained the house rules.

Some other words to be aware of when deciding essential or non-essential, comma or no comma—

Because
I ate because I was hungry.

I hoped I was on the right road, because I was a dead man otherwise.

Whose
She was the woman whose son had been lost at the lake.

She was the woman seen wandering the streets at night, whose son had been lost at the lake.

As
Timmy followed the puppy as it raced through the field.

Timmy followed the puppy, as the kidnapper had intended for him to do.

Note: Remember that you can move most nonessential words or phrases around in a sentence or pluck them out and the sentence will still make sense and the meaning will not change. (Relative clauses beginning with who, whose, and which can be plucked from a sentence without changing the meaning, but can’t always be easily moved around.) When you move or remove essential phrases, however, you often create nonsensical sentences or change the meaning of the original.

So . . .

Because I was a dead man otherwise,  I hoped I was on the right road.

I hoped, because I was a dead man otherwise, I was on the right road.

Seen wandering the streets at night, she was the woman whose son had been lost at the lake.

Timmy, as the kidnapper had intended for him to do, followed the puppy.

As the kidnapper had intended for him to do, Timmy followed the puppy.

But not

Whose son was lost at the lake, she was the woman. X

*******

For fun, a few more examples. Test yourself on the differences in meaning between the sentences in each pair.

The boys showed off the awards that they’d won.
The boys showed off the awards, which they’d won at the shooting range.

Rosella bought the donuts that were two days old.
Rosella bought the donuts, which were two days old.

She needed to return her books to the library that was just down the street.
She needed to return her books to the library, which was just down the street.

The sentences in each pair do  have different meanings.

________________________

This one was a bit detailed, with specifics for word choice and punctuation. I hope the examples prove clear and understandable.

Use the rules to help you say exactly what you intend to, what you need to, as you craft your stories.

Write clear sentences.

Write great fiction.

***

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56 Responses to “Restrictive or Not—When Do Clauses Need Commas?”

  1. I came across your blog today, and I am already a follower. I am adding your blog to my English Composition course’s Blackboard menu so my students can have access to your lessons. Excellent blog!

  2. Marina, I’m so glad you found articles and info you can use. It’s great to have you and your class here. Welcome.

  3. The kids running away frm the storm: I’d put a comma in, my eyes would itch otherwise. Is putting a comma in that last kids’ sentence a no-no or is it an option? Thbanks.

  4. Lee, I was looking at hoping to get down the mountain as essential—which school kids? those hoping to get down the mountain—so for what I intended, no comma is necessary. I was using the phrase as an adjective to describe the kids.

    A comparable sentence—The kids wearing blue hats took their places in line.

    However, you would include a comma if you wanted to refer to all the school kids, not just those hoping to get down the mountain.

    That was a great question to help highlight essential and non-essential phrases. Thanks.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I’m a student studying writing, and I came across your blog only a few days ago.I was reading through all the questions and came up with one of my own.

    “She had thrown bread crumbs to the swimming ducks, when a man on a bike had accidentally rode too close…”

    What is the rule with use of a comma before the word ‘when’? Is this sentence correct?

  6. Rebecca, there’s no one single rule for when. Let’s change some of the words and see how this plays out—

    She had thrown the last of the breadcrumbs to the ducks, when a man on a bike suddenly rode too close. (Unrelated events)

    She dropped the breadcrumbs when a man on a bike accidentally rode too close. (Cause and effect—with effect coming first)

    The wording in the second part of your original sentence may be throwing you off. Try either of the following—

    She had thrown breadcrumbs to the swimming ducks, when a man on a bike accidentally rode too close. (Unrelated events)

    She had thrown breadcrumbs to the swimming ducks when a man on a bike had accidentally ridden too close. (cause and effect again)

    This second option could get confusing, thus I’d suggest changing had accidentally ridden to accidentally rode. But I’m guessing that this is not the meaning you had in mind, otherwise you’d probably have written—She threw (not had thrown) breadcrumbs to the ducks when a man on a bike accidentally rode too close.

    My guess is that she’d already thrown the breadcrumbs before the man rode by.

    Does this help or have I increased the confusion?

  7. Lamia says:

    I’m trying to understand the comma in the longer “because” example, but I’m struggling.

    To me neither “because” sentence requires a comma (in that they are both sentences that contain an independent clause followed by a dependent one).

    The only thing I can think of is that the dependent clause can sometimes be considered non-essential, in that it provides additional information and could be removed from the main sentence without destroying its thrust, but (because of the comma) should be considered of equal importance to the main sentence?

    In which case, why do grammar and punctuation guides never properly prepare you for these situations? :s

    Does that make sense? Are you able to help me untangle my confusion?

    Lamia

  8. Lamia, some of these are truly tricky.

    You’re right in that most of the time, a subordinating conjunction introducing a dependent clause in the middle of a sentence doesn’t get a comma. But, yes, it gets one in the example here because the clause is non-essential.

    In the shorter sentence—I ate because I was hungry—all the words are essential for the meaning.

    In the longer sentence—I hoped I was on the right road, because I was a dead man otherwiseI hoped I was on the right road is sufficient for the meaning, meaning the other phrase is non-essential.

    A visual that might help is this version of the sentence—I, because I was a dead man otherwise, hoped I was on the right road. This sentence structure shows the non-essential phrase between commas.

    Let’s look at this another way. Let’s say this man is taking about hope in general. After all that’s happened to him, he still has hope. So we’d write—I still hoped, because I was a dead man without it. Does this one make it easier to see why a comma is necessary? We wouldn’t write—I still hoped because I was a dead man without it.

    As for why guides don’t give more examples of the odd stuff, that I can’t answer. My guess is that they’re most often simply trying to explain the general rules. But most probably think they’ve covered the subject when they explain the difference between essential and non-essential. And that’s what you’ll want to go with here.

    Does that help?

  9. Lamia says:

    Yes, thanks.

    Regarding the dependent clause as non-essential was the only way I could rationalize it – and it probably clarifies why I have an overwhelming urge to put a comma after “one” in the sentence below.

    “I bought an ice cream because I wanted one, even though my friends warned me about the calories.”

    LOL – I’ve spent days trying to find an explanation for that comma.

  10. Lamia, your urge for a comma there is a good one. You’ll find commas before although, even though, and whereas because they’re introducing non-essential phrases or because they present an extreme contrast. One more for the wacky rules list.

    Thanks for your question—it was a great addition to this discussion.

    • Lamb says:

      Lol – I’m still finding plenty to learn about comma usage. I have one regarding this sort of structure:

      “The police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving, after crashing his car into a fence.”

      I really want to take that comma out, but others have argued that leaving it in is the right thing to do because he didn’t plead guilty right after crashing the car – that came later. I’m left side-eyeing this sentence.

      I’d appreciate your thoughts on it.

      • I would say no comma. After is a subordinate conjunction. Though there are exceptions—as there always are—when the subordinate conjunction comes midsentence, there is usually no comma. If the after crashing clause came first, there would be a comma. So . . . After crashing his car into a fence, the police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving but The police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving after crashing his car into a fence.

        How much later has nothing to do with whether or not this sentence gets a comma. After means after.

        I hope that helps.

        • Sam says:

          I’m having trouble knowing when to put a comma before a subordinate clause. For instance, why would there not be a comma before after in, “The police officer pleaded guilty to careless driving after crashing his car into a fence?” However, there would be a comma before after in the sentence, “The police officer, after cashing his car into a fence, pleaded guilty to careless driving.” Since you can move the “after…” part of the sentence around, why is it considered essential?

  11. Luca says:

    Do you use a comma before expressions that do not compound the subject such as “along with,” “combined with,” or “as well as.” For example, is there one needed in the following sentence:

    My education, combined with my experience in the field, is well-suited to the requirements of the job.

    My fear is that by using commas I would be making the paranthetical information inferior or subordinate to the main subject when in fact it should receive equal weight. I know an “and” would solve the problem but sometimes, in complex sentences, it can get over-used and another construction becomes desirable. I would really appreciate some help.

  12. Luca, yes, you would use commas in your example. If you want the info between the commas to stand out more, you could use a pair of em dashes for the parenthetical instead. But I can’t see that you’d need that here. And using dashes would give my experience the edge. If you want the elements truly equal, joining them with and would be a better choice. Or give each element a sentence of its own. My education is well-suited to the requirements of the job. As is my five years of experience as an XYZ.

    In your example, you might want to reconsider the word combined. Your example doesn’t say that both your education and experience are well-suited to the job, but that your education combined with your experience is. And do you want to say that the education and experience are suited to the requirements or that an individual is? A better wording might be Both my education and my experience in the field make me particularly well-suited to the job requirements.

    I hope you can find something that works in these options.

  13. Raj says:

    India is a multicultural and multilingual land, whose identity lies in its diversity. Do we actually need a comma before whose in this sentence?
    m a bit confused…..read about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses…according to that, there should be one
    if we don’t use comma, then it means that we are talking about one particular India out of many.
    But one of teachers in my acquaintance says that there should not be a comma.
    what is your opinion?

    • Raj, I can see arguments for both sides from your example, especially because the sides might actually be arguing that the sentence says one or the other of two things. Yet as the sentence stands, no comma is needed—the sentence at its most basic seems to say India is a land whose identity lies in its diversity.

      Yet by moving the words around, this also works—India, whose identity lies in its diversity, is a multicultural and multilingual land. (The meaning here is different from that of the first sentence. This one focuses on India being multicultural and multilingual.)

      In this second option, you can see the nonessential phrase quite clearly.

      But what exactly do you want to say? That’s the key here. Are you saying that India is a multicultural/multilingual land or that India’s identity lies in its diversity? The meaning will guide the comma decision.

      I’m guessing that the second meaning is the one you want, that India’s identity lies in its diversity. In this case, no comma—the phrase is essential—India is a multicultural and multilingual land whose identity lies in its diversity.

      Another sentence with the same setup might make this easier to see. The following is a simple declaration—

      The boy is a bully whose temper gets the better of him.

      A few other examples, changing your original wording a bit—

      India is a large land whose borders touch several other countries.

      India is a compelling land whose people make it unique.

      If you wanted to stick a nonessential phrase in the sentence and set it off by commas, you could, but as the original is written, no comma is needed.

      I hope that helps. (I’m not sure what you meant about one particular India out of many. Maybe you could share more.)

  14. Hi, and thanks for this wonderful blog – I hope you still answer questions! I have two of those:

    1. In one of the first sentences above, “When is a comma necessary and when can it be dropped?”, why is there no comma before “and” (aren’t they two independent clauses?)

    2. Can you explain the rules of commas between two or more similar subordinate clauses, i.e. introduced with the same conjunction?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Birgitte, I’m glad you found the blog. I hope there’s a lot here you can use.

      1. Yes, we typically put a comma between independent clauses joined by a conjunction. Yet we can also make the style choice to exclude a comma. It’s more likely that we’d do that in fiction or in a less than formal piece of writing rather than in something formal. If the clauses are brief and there’s no chance readers will get confused, you can skip the comma, although it would never be wrong to include it.

      2. I’m not sure exactly what you’re getting at with question 2. I must be missing something. Can you give me an example? I’m trying to think of a logical way to introduce two subordinate clauses with the same subordinating conjunction, but I’m having trouble coming up with an example.

      After Lucy stopped and got off her bike, after she ran over to the body in the road, she threw up in the bushes. This uses the same conjunction, but I had to use it twice to make sense. This would require a comma. The following would not require one, but it could take one, depending on whether or not the second subordinate clause is being treated as a parenthetical—After Lucy stopped and after she ran over to the body in the road, she threw up in the bushes. OR After Lucy stopped, and after she ran over to the body in the road, she threw up in the bushes.

      Using dashes rather than commas—

      After Lucy stopped—and after she ran over to the body in the road—she threw up in the bushes.

      After Lucy stopped—after she ran over to the body in the road—she threw up in the bushes.

      Yet I don’t imagine that’s what you had in mind.

      Hmm . . . Maybe something like these—

      Before Max tumbled from bed and rolled into his clothes, he finished his dream.

      Before Max tumbled from bed, rolled into his clothes, and made breakfast for his brothers, he finished his dream.

      Am I getting at your question with any of these examples?

      • Thanks very much for your answer! I apologise for not writing a sentence that demonstrated what I asked, but you got it right with the sentence: “After Lucy stopped(,) and after she ran over to the body in the road, she threw up in the bushes”. Or something like: “I ate the eggs, which were nice, and which were white”. Yes, I know I’m terrible at making sentences (in my example you wouldn’t need to make an extra clause), but you get the point: I can (must?) put a comma before the second subordinate, parenthetical clause? And what if the second clause was restrictive: “I ate the eggs, which were nice, and that were white (if I don’t like brown eggs)? If the first subordinate clause is parenthetical, shouldn’t it be surrounded by commas – or does the rule of not making a comma before “that” win? And are there any differences in these comma rules if the two parallel subordinate clauses come before or efter the main sentence?

      • I also have another question that has been bothering me: In a relative, restrictive clause, no commas come after the subordinate clause (right?): “To confirm his belief in an eternal paradise over which God had dominion was essential”. But what if the subordinate clause is very long, or if there are many, like: “To confirm his belief in an eternal paradise over which God had dominion and over which no evil powers could ever gain control and which would never cease to exist was essential”? (If they are all restrictive, no commas between them, right?) Would you never put a comma after the last clause in order to signal that we now return to the main sentence? And if I put commas around the second clause (because this was non-restrictive), would that be correct? I hope that these are easy questions that don’t take too much of your time, even though the question is lengthy :-) (I’m Danish, but I really want to understand English grammer – and your site has been very useful already!)

  15. Jake Houck says:

    In the example above about “My wife, Heidi,” would we place a comma before Heidi if it were the last name in a sentence—yes or no? It appears that if we did, the sentence could also mean something else:

    I need to speak with my wife, Heidi. (It looks as though you’re telling Heidi that you need to speak with your wife, no? Should we drop the comma before Heidi here?)

    And should we drop the hyphens around Heidi here? Same issue of direct address/vocative case exists:

    I need to speak with my wife, Heidi, about the issue.

    What would you recommend in these sentences—comma(s) or no comma(s)?

    Thank you.

    • Jake, you’re right about the possibility that these sentences could be read multiple ways. My answer about the commas is the same here as for your other examples—the comma before the name serves a purpose.

      One would assume that the surrounding text would provide context so that readers would understand which meaning was meant here. We work all our sentences so that together they create the needed meaning.

      I’m guessing that you might be a copyeditor or proofreader since you’ve mentioned that you can’t reword the text. That’s a tough spot to be in. Being limited regarding changes to text is a topic that deserves an article of its own.

      Is it possible to drop the name?

      I would keep the commas. But you certainly have the option to omit them. Yet do keep in mind that some readers will notice. I’d guess that more readers would notice the missing comma (or wonder about multiple wives) than be confused about who Heidi was.

  16. Jake Houck says:

    I meant “commas around Heidi” above. Lol.

  17. Jake Houck says:

    Hello,

    In the absence of an official complimentary closing (such as “Yours truly” or “Sincerely yours”), should a comma or a period follow the words ” Thanks” and “Thank you” in a correspondence—email or otherwise?

    E.g.:

    Dear Mike,

    Body of letter……

    Thank you, <-comma or period here?

    John

    And—

    Dear Mike,

    Body of letter……

    Thanks, <-comma or period here?

    John

    • Jake, it’s likely that you can use thanks followed by a comma in an informal letter or e-mail, but some “experts” don’t consider thanks a complimentary closing and would recommend a period after it.

      I rather agree that thank you should be a sentence of its own in a formal communication. And that means it should be followed by an additional line for the closing.

      So . . . for friends and family? Thanks with a comma is fine. For business and when formality counts, use thank you and follow it with a period. Add a true closing afterwards.

  18. Jake Houck says:

    Last one on commas.

    My wife, Diane, and I are going to dinner.

    I’m referring to two people (not three) in this sentence—that is, both my wife and me. But the nonrestrictive appositive rule states that I need commas around Diane to show that she’s my only wife. As it stands with the two commas, the sentence above is referring to three people, correct?

    In this rare case should I shatter this rule, and write:

    My wife Diane and I are going to dinner.

    And:

    Diane (my wife) and I are going to dinner.

    Do both examples work (with no commas in the first, and parents in the second)?

    Thank you.

    • Jake, your first example could be read either way—it refers both to two and three people, depending on how it’s read.

      Yes, if you were to drop the commas around a name, this would be the time to do so. But you know my suggestion—you can always rewrite so that there’s no chance of confusion at all.

      As for parentheses, it depends. What kind of document? They do work to convey the correct meaning, but the parentheses themselves might not be appropriate. For example, sometimes they don’t work well for fiction.

  19. Jake Houck says:

    Oops! This is the last one on commas—promise!

    Our Paris, France, vacation was canceled. (Comma required/needed after “France”?)

    The Trenton, New Jersey, youth was arrested on a charge of petit larceny.  (Comma required/needed after “New Jersey”?)

    The September 30, 2015, meeting has been postponed.  (Comma required/needed after “2015”?)

    France, New Jersey, and 2015 all appear to be pieces of essential information in those sentences, so should I omit the commas after each item? If not, why?

    Thanks again, Beth!

    • Jake, commas are required after all three. This is standard practice.

      Consider each nonessential, even though they may seem to be essential. Without those words, the sentences are still grammatical and they still make sense.

      Our Paris vacation was canceled.

      The Trenton youth was arrested on a charge of petit larceny.

      The September 30 meeting has been postponed.

      ————-

      This rule might not seem to make sense, but keep the commas.

      Note: For the British English dating system when the day comes first—25 September 2015—there are no commas.

  20. Baren Nix says:

    I came across your article and I find it really interesting. Commas are going to be my downfall in my writing, so I’m trying hard to read everything I can on comma usage. Yours seem very informative and very easy to follow. I’ll keep coming back reading more and more about writing. BTW, I do write fiction.

  21. Denise Lasky says:

    Hi.

    Thank you for your speedy replies! You’re amazing at this stuff. What a genius! Truly grateful for everything, Beth.

    In the sentences below, are the commas placed correctly?

    (1) John Doe, of the XYZ Corporation, will resign on Friday.

    (2) Frank Fish, of the Albany Police Department, made the arrest.

    (3) John Smith, of Brooklyn, won the lottery.

    (4) Winning the lottery was John Smith, of Brooklyn.

    (5) Gary Greaseman, of Union Street, won the marathon.

    (6) Hershey Sampson, of Maple Avenue, died in the collision.

    Thanks again! Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Denise, most of these could go either way—you have to decide on what you want to say here. Most of the information that you’ve set off could actually be essential or nonessential.

      The only one I might not write as nonessential is #4. Yet that’s only because I can’t hear it with the comma. That is, I can’t imagine that someone would actually say it that way. Yet I can imagine it with parentheses, so it could definitely take the comma.

      Does it make sense that each of these sentences could go either way?

      • Denise Lasky says:

        Thank you!!!

        Is it correct to use commas after that clauses? If you remove the information set off by commas (whether essential or not) the sentences below still make sense. I see a lot of writers do it like this, but is it technically correct. Do you agree with the punctuation in the sentences below, Beth? If not, how would you do it? Is it totally wrong to use the commas as I have done below?

        He said that, in 1968, his parents moved to Woodstock.

        Please be advised that, on May 6, Mr. Cummings will resign.

        Kyle said that, despite the circumstances involved, he will divorce Sheila.

        Thank you.

        • Denise, commas here would indicate nonessential clauses. Think of the information between the commas as parentheticals. Yet I wouldn’t set off any of these with commas; the information seems essential to me. And there’s no reason to interrupt the that clause. I suggest keeping the second comma with each but dropping the first.

          He said that in 1968, his parents moved to Woodstock.

          You could always rewrite each sentence as well, to eliminate the need for commas, but you may want the more important words last in the sentence.

          Please be advised that Mr. Cummings will resign on May 6. (Resign is a stronger word to end on.)

          Kyle said that he will divorce Sheila despite the circumstances. (Divorce Sheila gets lost in the middle of the sentence here. I’d keep those words at the end.)

          Kyle said that despite the circumstances, he will divorce Sheila.

          ————–

          So are the commas wrong? Not technically. But they detract more than they add and they’re unnecessary. They would be wrong if the parenthetical phrase is actually essential.

  22. Denise Lasky says:

    Beth,

    Do we use a comma after “etc.,” “and so forth,” and “and so on” below?

    Hammers, pliers, etc., are needed for the project.

    Hammers, pliers, and so on, are needed for the project.

    Hammers, pliers, and so forth, are needed for the project.

    Mike, Dave, et al., will be at the meeting. ( I say a comma after “et al.” Do you concur?)

    Mike, et al. will be there. (I say no comma after “et al.” here, because the sentence is “Mike and others will be there.” We wouldn’t write, “Mike and others, will be there.”

    Lastly,

    Would a comma follow the word “write” in the sentence below?

    I would write, “Do unto others as they do unto you.”

    Thank you.

  23. Denise, no commas after and so forth, and so on, etc. or et al. Just as there is no comma after Joe in Mike, Dave, and Joe will be at the meeting, you don’t need a comma after the other lists. Use commas to separate three or more items in a list or series, yet don’t insert a comma between the compound subject and the verb.

    Revised on 10/2/2015—

    CMOS (16th edition, 6.20) recommends a comma after etc., et al., and so forth, and and the like at the ends of lists midsentence, but Garner’s says that no comma is necessary. I’m with Garner’s on this one.

    No comma after et al. in your sentence with Mike. And no comma before et al. either. We don’t use a comma to separate two items in a list.

    Yes, include the comma after write in this example.

  24. Lou Sanders says:

    Beth, are these technically correct?

    The question is, where do I find one? (Comma after “is”? Lowercase ” where”?)

    The question is “Where do I find one?” (No comma after “is,” because we used quotes around the question, correct?)

    Thank you.

  25. Lou Sanders says:

    When we address a human being on a line by itself, we place a comma after “Hi” or “Hello,” followed by that person’s name, then a period.

    Hi, Mike.
    Blah blah blah.

    But if we write “Hi there” or “Hello there,” do we also put a comma after “Hi” and “Hello,” and follow each with a period?

    E.g.:

    Hi, there.
    Blah blah blah.

    Hello, there.
    Blah blah blah.

    Thank you, Beth.

  26. Dear Beth, I found this sentence on one of Cambridge Dictionaries’ webpages (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/relative-pronouns). “It’s lovely and clean there, and there are lots of toys that he can play with and he’s so happy.” The page is about both relative clauses and punctutation. However, I don’t understand why there is no comma before “and he’s so happy.” Isn’t it a new main clause, and aren’t these introduced by commas? Can you explain? Best from Birgitte

    • Birgitte, I looked at this a couple of times, but I’m not sure why they didn’t include the second comma. I could understand not using any commas and running the clauses together, and I could understand using a couple of other constructions, but this one does seem odd.

      Because they were focused on which, they may have simply overlooked the comma. You might want to go with that assumption.

  27. So,beth…
    If we are intended about the grammar of the sentence,which one of this choices that correct?
    1) The insect,___,bit my brother’s arms last night
    A) a big spider hairy legs
    B) it is a big spider with hairy legs
    C) a big spider which with hairy legs
    D) which is a big hairy legged spider
    2) Mars ,___,has two satelites
    A) which is the fourtj planet from the sun
    B) it is the fourth planet from the sun
    C) the fourth planet from the sun
    D) is the fourth planet of the sun

    Are A and B correct in number 1?
    And,are A and C correct in number 2?

  28. So,beth…
    If we are intended about the grammar of the sentence,which one of this choices that correct?
    1) The insect,___,bit my brother’s arms last night
    A) a big spider hairy legs
    B) it is a big spider with hairy legs
    C) a big spider which with hairy legs
    D) which is a big hairy legged spider
    2) Mars ,___,has two satelites
    A) which is the fourtj planet from the sun
    B) it is the fourth planet from the sun
    C) the fourth planet from the sun
    D) is the fourth planet of the sun

    Are A and B correct in number 1?
    And,are A and C correct in number 2?
    Please help me

  29. Lou Sanders says:

    Hi Beth,

    Should a comma precede these sentence-ending words?

    I’m not going to the meeting, either.

    I am going, too.
    Me, too.

    He was brutally honest, though.

    He’s quite arrogant, really.
    He’s quite abrasive, actually.

    If he goes, I’m not going, then.
    (I think we can delete the first comma but keep the second one before “then,” correct?

    Mike and Bill scored twenty and thirty points, respectively.

    Thank you.

  30. I’m with CMOS on not using commas when you don’t have to, especially with these two words at the ends of sentences. I typically recommend no comma, but it’s not likely that anyone would consider commas wrong in these sentences. This becomes a style choice.

    I’m not going to the meeting either.
    I am going too.
    Me too.

    ———–

    I would keep all these commas—

    He was brutally honest, though.

    He’s quite arrogant, really.

    He’s quite abrasive, actually.

    When though means however at the end of a sentence, I recommend a comma. In such cases, the writer seems to want to create contrast, and the comma helps to do that. Many others, however, don’t insist on a comma before though at the end of a sentence.

    Actually and really in your examples seem like sentence adverbs attached at the ends of the sentences. In such cases, they should get commas.

    You’re not saying, He’s actually quite abrasive. You are saying, Actually, he’s quite abrasive. (If you mean to say, He’s actually quite abrasive, you’d want to rewrite.)

    Actually is the opinion of the speaker, an adverb that modifies the entire sentence. Usually they come at the beginning of the sentence.

    ———-

    If he goes, I’m not going, then.

    Keep both commas. For the first, you need a comma after the dependent clause before the independent one.

    For the second, CMOS suggests no comma before then at the end of sentences when you’re talking about “the appointed time.” But you would include one when then is used to mean “in that case.”

    This makes sense. If you wrote, “If he goes, I’m not going then,” people would want to know when you, the speaker, are going. If not then, when?

    ————

    Mike and Bill scored twenty and thirty points, respectively or Mike and Bill scored twenty and thirty points respectively.

    There is absolutely no consensus on this one. Most of the time, you probably don’t need the comma. Of course, most of the time you also wouldn’t need the word respectively. Use it (the word) when the sentence is long or confusing. Use the comma for clarity in sentences with many parts or if word choice would create confusion. And rewriting is always an option as well. Clarity would be served by writing Mike scored twenty points, and Bill scored thirty.