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Comma use is tough for many of us. We check CMOS, Hart’s and our favorite grammar books, and sometimes we’re still not certain when to include a comma and when it’s safe to exclude them.
In this article we’re going to look at comma use near the beginnings of sentences, after introductory elements. The rules here are for specific uses of commas only, so take care not to assume they’ll be valid for all uses of commas.
Contrary to oft-quoted advice, comma use does not depend upon where you want a pause in a sentence. Yes, there is leeway at times, and you can add or omit commas for clarity, effect, and style choice. But for the most part, there are rules for commas. And those rules help readers understand even nuances in our sentences.
We often separate sentence parts with commas to maintain a distinction between those parts and to help with clarity. Commas are part of punctuation standards that make it easier for us to communicate quickly, clearly, and efficiently. Consider commas as a bit of shorthand that communicates information to readers.
For example, commas used with a series of nouns or verbs signal that there are more nouns or verbs to come after each comma.
A comma between adjectives tells readers that each adjective independently modifies the following noun or pronoun.
And commas after introductory elements point out the break between one element and another, allowing readers to read without hesitating over meaning.
Let’s look at a handful of uses for commas with elements used at the beginnings of sentences.
Dependent Clauses Before Independent Clauses
Use commas between the clauses when a dependent clause comes before an independent one. The dependent clauses are introduced by subordinating conjunctions.
Because I lost the race, I had to give my brother five dollars.
If she had known the road ended, she wouldn’t have driven off the cliff.
When Shortie herds sheep, he loves to roll in the sweet clover.
Since Elise knew the answer she raised her hand. X (The comma is missing.)
When the order is reversed—independent clause before the dependent—we typically don’t separate the clauses with commas. There are exceptions, however, for great contrast, typically for clauses introduced by even though, whereas, though, and although.
Shortie loves to roll in the sweet clover when he herds sheep.
Martin wanted to compete in the decathlon, even though he had never competed in any field events.
Exceptions? No. Use a comma between dependent and independent clauses when the dependent comes first.
A sentence adverb—used to express the narrator or viewpoint character’s attitude toward the sentiment conveyed by the sentence—is separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. The adverb’s purpose is to modify the whole sentence or a clause. Just be sure that your sentence adverb is actually modifying the entire sentence and not just one verb or an adjective.
Because not every adverb at the beginning of a sentence is a sentence adverb, not every adverb at the beginning of a sentence requires a comma.
Regrettably, the whole affair was nothing like I expected and yet everything I feared.
“Honestly, you should have told me months ago.”
Sadly, the hurricane wiped out what was left of the town.
Suddenly, she took off after the dog, but Jimmy continued his lecture. X
Suddenly isn’t a sentence adverb in the fourth sentence; it actually modifies took off.
Better would be either of these—
Suddenly she took off after the dog, but Jimmy continued his lecture.
She suddenly took off after the dog, but Jimmy continued his lecture.
Note: Hopefully has gotten a bad rep for being used as a sentence adverb, but many accept its long-time use in this position as legitimate. If your character would use hopefully as a sentence adverb in thought or dialogue—Hopefully, the sun wouldn’t set until they reached the cabin—use it. For an omniscient narrator? You may want to reword. Still, you don’t have to.
Interjections—words or phrases used to show emotion—can be followed by a comma or an exclamation point. They are not grammatically related to other words in the sentence.
Hey, remember me?
“Oh, is that what you meant?”
Drats! I forgot my money for the movie.
“Hallelujah! You passed the entrance exam!”
“No way! I don’t believe you.”
Oh boy, I totally messed up that reconciliation.
Note: No comma between oh and boy when they’re operating as one interjection. This is true for other phrases such as oh damn, oh dear, oh my, ah yes, oh well, oh God, and oh yeah. Consider them multiword interjections similar to gracious me and good grief.
Treat words such as yes, no, yep, nope, well, and well then as interjections when they stand alone at the beginning of a sentence—follow them with a comma.
No, she didn’t know how to subdue a zombie horde.
Well, I certainly won’t forget.
Yep, I did it.
Yet don’t assume that just because one of these words comes first in a sentence that a comma automatically follows. There is no comma after no in the following sentence:
No boys were allowed inside the clubhouse.
Exceptions? Use an exclamation point when you need to be more emphatic. And if you use an exclamation point, remember to capitalize the first word in the sentence that follows.
Commas After Coordinating Conjunctions?
Somewhere back in the day, teachers must have taught us to include a comma after coordinating conjunctions used at the beginning of sentences, because many of us include them. But very often no comma is required. Actually, most of the time you can skip the comma after an opening coordinating conjunction.
Coordinating conjunctions are the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. You can use them to begin sentences, but they are connectors; make sure you choose the one that makes sense for what you want to say. Make sure the sentence beginning with a coordinating conjunction links back to the previous sentence.
She kissed me passionately. And then she decked me.
Tommy told me he washed and put away the dishes. Yet he can’t even reach the sink.
Steffie didn’t want to see a movie or take a walk. Nor did she want to go out to dinner.
“I’m not ready yet.”
“But you told me to come at five.”
She wanted the yellow blouse. Or was it the blue one?
Include commas after coordinating conjunctions that start sentences only when a nonessential phrase or a parenthetical follows the conjunction.
Or, she wanted to know, had I left my husband?
Yet, and this is crucial, I’d forgotten to pack my pistol.
I’ll argue that you can make a case for or against comma use with some parentheticals.
In the next example, the comma after yet in the first sentence seems to be required. For the second sentence, the requirement for a comma is not as certain.
And yet, as she was quick to remind me, I’d never actually done it.
“So, regardless of your directives, they ate all the cookies you’d made for the bake sale?”
“So regardless of your directives, they ate all the cookies you’d made for the bake sale?”
“And regardless of your directives, they ate all the cookies?”
The following sentences are incorrect. No comma is necessary.
But, not because of the answers I gave. X
Or, she would have to do it alone. X
For, it was a mistake right from the start. X
And, my brother needed me. X
Before and/or After Names in Direct Address
As always, use commas before and/or after names in direct address.
“But, Milt, I don’t know how to drive.”
“Lucy, please pick up your roller skates.”
Commas with Introductory Phrases
Commas almost always follow phrases at the beginning of sentences; use the comma to separate the phrase from the independent clause. This means use a comma after a participial phrase, an absolute phrase, an infinitive phrase, and a prepositional phrase.
There is some leeway with prepositional phrases. You don’t have to include the comma with short prepositional phrases (three words or fewer). But if there’s any chance of confusion, use a comma. (Some sources recommend four words as the cutoff point.)
I’ve read recommendations that say we also have leeway with short infinitive phrases. But I almost always hear the comma with infinitive phrases.
Wanting to know where we were going, Gina and I lifted the blinds. (participial phrase)
Hands folded in prayer, the priest prayed for the nation. (absolute phrase)
To prove that he was brave, Galahad Jr. ran into the center of the battle. (infinitive phrase)
To avoid capture he uses fake identities. (short infinitive phrase)
Under the flowering rose bushes, the snake slithered into hiding. (prepositional phrase)
Under the arch he kissed me for the first time. (short prepositional phrase)
On Saturday we’ll be going to the movies. (short prepositional phrase)
Outside, the air was foul. (a short prepositional phrase, but without a comma, readers might read outside the air as a phrase)
Commas After Appositives
Appositives are nouns or noun phrases that rename the noun. They are often set off by commas.
A red-haired recruit, Darren Smithson, caught the eye of the drill sergeant’s daughter.
A red-haired recruit, Darren caught the eyes of the drill sergeant’s daughter.
Darren, a red-haired recruit, caught the eye of the drill sergeant’s daughter.
Appositives can be essential or nonessential, however, and this affects comma use. We use commas for nonessential appositives but not for essential ones.
My oldest brother, Ned, is forty-three.
In this sentence, the name Ned is nonessential and could be lifted out of the sentence without changing the meaning. The speaker’s oldest brother is still 43.
My brother Ned is forty-three.
In this sentence the speaker is telling us that he has more than one brother and that the one named Ned is 43. To know which brother is 43, the name Ned is essential.
(Yes, I purposely used a comma after in this sentence three paragraphs back and omitted it in the previous paragraph. Both are correct.)
Transitional Words and Phrases
Transitional words and phrases at the beginnings of sentences move us from one thought, one sentence, to the next. Many are conjunctive adverbs. Transitional words and phrases are almost always followed by commas, but there are exceptions. Let’s look at a few categories of transitional words (there are others).
contrast—despite, on the contrary, on the other hand, still
cause and effect—therefore, thus, so
restatement or clarification—in other words, again
time—now, then, later, today, tomorrow, yesterday, afterward
example—that is, for example, specifically
intensification—of course, indeed, in fact, undoubtedly
While commas follow most of these transitions, you can skip the commas with single-word adverbs of time.
Today he has plans to meet the detective. Tomorrow he’ll go after Junior.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
First you’ll need two hammers. Then you’ll need two aspirin.
But do include commas after first, second, third, and so forth when they introduce a series of items.
He’d learned three lessons. First, to never ignore his wife. Second, to always carry cash. Third, to buy I’m-sorry gifts only when he’d already apologized.
Note: You wouldn’t use a comma when words such as today, tomorrow, yesterday, and now are used as the subject of a sentence.
Today is my birthday.
Now is the time to act.
Since there are some great internet resources with lists of transitions, I’ve linked to a few of them rather than duplicating the lists. Keep in mind, however, that some online sites include rules for students, rules different from allowances for fiction writers.
For example, one site reminds writers to always put a comma after a transition. But we already know that there are exceptions.
Transitional Words and Phrases—The Writer’s Handbook from the University of Wisconsin Writing Center
Transition Word List—Schoolworld.com
Conjunctive Adverbs—Kip Wheeler at cn.edu.
~ Transition words such as therefore and indeed are often followed by commas, but they don’t have to be. The trend is toward a more light-handed use of commas. If meaning is clear and readers couldn’t possibly misread, consider dropping commas from single-word transitions (and even a few multiword transitions).
Therefore you shouldn’t have to pay a dime.
Indeed it’s true.
Is your father joining us?
Of course he isn’t.
~ The word however, however, should be followed by a comma at the beginning of a sentence when it means nevertheless. That way readers won’t be confused, wondering if it might mean no matter how or to whatever extent, other meanings of however.
The climb was steep. However, we were game to try it.
However lost she was, we knew she wouldn’t stay that way.
~ Do include a comma when the transition word is followed by a dependent clause or a question.
Therefore, if you think about it, you’ll know I’m right.
Consequently, do you even want to go?
Again, are you sure you can do it?
Conversely, should you actually need help, you’re never able to find it.
~ Except for emphasis or to indicate exclusivity, we typically don’t use commas when a conjunctive adverb falls between the noun and the main verb of the sentence.
He therefore expected a raise in pay.
Ellen likewise waited at the bar.
Linus consequently won the race.
Wanda, without doubt, is the stronger candidate.
~ Although there are exceptions, don’t shy away from commas after introductory elements. You will include them much of the time.
Nevertheless, I’d forgotten the entire speech.
On the other hand, you’ll probably want to order dessert.
For example, he leaped over the building in a single bound.
As a result, the peace treaty was abandoned.
Furthermore, your current girlfriend and your ex both called.
Single Words Set Off By Commas
Participles and parenthetical adjectives (and adjectives out of their normal order) are always set off with a comma (or pair of commas) at the beginning of a sentence.
Sighing, Madison began the climb up the six flights of stairs.
Jill, ecstatic, accepted the invitation.
Ecstatic, Jill accepted the invitation.
Follow the rules for commas most of the time—your readers will appreciate it.
Yet don’t feel that there aren’t allowances for creativity. Sometimes you simply want a less formal or structured feel. Maybe you want less punctuation clutter. For many short introductory elements, you can omit the comma if the meaning is clear.