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Introduce Me with a Comma

August 27, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 27, 2015

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.


Sentence Adverbs

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.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Beyond the Basics, Grammar & Punctuation

29 Responses to “Introduce Me with a Comma”

  1. Beth,

    I’m grammar-challenged. I love your site and your emails. (I will be purchasing your new book when it’s available in soft cover.) I read, and reread, this post. I understand it when I read it, but I can’t seem to keep the information in my brain. When I write, I have to send my work to someone who can point out all my grammatical missteps. Or, I write in a stylized fashion that obfuscates my shortcomings. (A short story of mine was recently published and won a contest. The only punctuation in the 1,700 word story were periods.) I think I need a fifth grade intro to grammar book. Any suggestions?

    • Scott, I’m guessing that almost any grammar book would be helpful. At the same time, I don’t think that any one book will have all your answers. I link to two books in the left sidebar that would definitely be helpful—The Chicago Manual of Style and Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman.

      What you might want to do for practice is to write your own sentences—maybe a list of 4 or 5—that match each rule. That way you get practice using your own words with each rule. The practice definitely couldn’t hurt.

      • Thank you, Beth. Writing my own sentences seems like good way to ingrain some of these rules that I struggle with. I also think some grade school sentence diagramming would help. Every story I’ve written so far has been picked up for publication. I must be doing something right.

        Looking forward to reading your new book. Thanks again.

  2. Thanks, Beth, for the great advice on using commas. I feel uncertain sometimes, about using a dash between clauses in a sentence, as opposed to using parenthesis or commas. Grammar books don’t seem to offer much in the way of advice on that issue.

    • Aaron, I know that Grammatically Correct at least mentions the three options, but sometimes you have to go with feel and the needs of the scene.

      I’ve seen recommendations that advise against the use of parentheses in fiction. While I agree that they shouldn’t be used often, I wouldn’t advise a blanket prohibition. Still, parentheses stand out. They can highlight the fact that a reader is only reading and not really living inside the fictional world. They might not be the best choice.

      Because I didn’t address the differences between commas and dashes or commas and parentheses in this article, I should probably work up an article on their purposes, effects, and differences.

      In one of the examples here, I could have easily used dashes—

      Yet, and this is crucial, I’d forgotten to pack my pistol.

      Yet—and this is crucial—I’d forgotten to pack my pistol.

      Thanks for the prompt for an article.

  3. I was a secretary for many years. Using shorthand had a positive impact on my writing because taking dictation taught me to listen and mark all pauses. It was in transcribing the text that I had to evaluate whether the comma (or other punctuation) was valid — and I spent many a moment in my Gregg Reference Manual (a secretary’s bible) making sure the boss wasn’t just taking a breath!

    Thank you for this timely article on commas.

    • Catherine, I’d never considered that, that someone would have to determine whether or not the speaker was pausing for breath while dictating. I bet you eventually got used to your boss’s rhythms.

      And having to check Gregg’s was obviously a chore that paid off for you today.

  4. Alex Hurst says:

    Great post. I was just today running through your archives trying to find an answer to an unrelated issue, but I do have a question here.

    As far as I can understand, CMoS says that when we are quoting with “scare quotes”, the comma should be INSIDE that final quote, but even though I’ve been correcting myself, it still looks wrong…. and I see it the way I typed it enough that I am always second guessing myself…. so… which is really, truly the right way? 😀

    • Alex, CMOS shows the American English rules, and in AmE, commas always go inside. For British English, put the comma inside the quotation marks if the comma belongs to the quote itself.

      For “scare quotes,” when you’re just putting quotation marks around the word(s) to make the word stand out, the rules are the same. If a comma follows, as in your example, put the comma inside if you’re following AmE rules and outside for BrE.

      • Darien says:

        Hi Beth, just to follow up on a similar question. When quotes are used on a title of something, like a song, doesn’t the punctuation go outside the quote. I had a beta reader point that out, and I found arguments for both ways. As in all things, I love your advice best!

        I too find commas tricky, and often add them when I hear a pause while writing. All your articles about them have been helpful!!!

        Many Thanks!

        • Darien, are we talking British English (BrE) or American English (AmE) rules? The rules are different.

          For AmE, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks no matter what the situation. For BrE, commas and periods go inside only if they’re part of a quotation—and if we’re talking titles, that means they’re not likely part of the title, so they’d go outside.

          AmE—He told me that his favorite song was “Jumpin’ Blue,” and then he sang a few lines.

          BrE—He told me that his favorite song was ‘Jumpin’ Blue’, and then he sang a few lines.

          Colons, semicolons, and dashes go outside the quotation marks for both BrE and AmE.

          For both BrE and AmE, question marks and exclamation points go inside if they’re part of the quoted material and outside if they’re not part of the quoted material.


          I’m glad that the articles about commas have been helpful. Commas certainly get a lot of use and have a wide variety of rules.

          • Darien says:

            “For AmE, commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks no matter what the situation.”

            This was the perfect answer! Thanks again!

  5. Pat Garcia says:

    Hi Beth,
    Thank you once again for a post that I really needed. When it comes to commas, I get lost along the way, but I think I’m improving. You have given precise information on the use of commas here and this is a big help for me.

    • Patricia, I love being timely. And I’m glad this article has some tips you can use. For more on commas, click on commas in the tag cloud in the right sidebar. You’ll find a handful of articles on comma use for a variety of circumstances.

  6. Roy says:

    Thanks for these articles. They are very helpful to me.

    In another comment someone mentioned “scare quotes,” which I take to mean are quotes used for emphasis, as opposed to irony, say, or to introduce an unfamiliar word or phrase. So, this is OK? I always cringe when I notice quotes used for emphasis, or the whole thing winds up being unintentionally humorous. Am I thinking of the same thing as you and the commenter? Typically, I see signs that use them in this way: Hot Dogs on sale “today only.”

    • I wrote a column in a newspaper for five years. I was told that I could not use quote marks or italics for emphasis. My editor said, “You need to word the sentence well enough to communicate the intended emphasis.” I don’t know if that’s a common practice or not.

      • Roy says:

        Thanks for that information, Scott. I’m not really the grammar Nazi type, (for lack of qualification) but I had always thought quotes implied something said by somebody, one way or another.

      • Scott, you’re permitted to use italics for emphasis in fiction. You just wouldn’t want to get carried away and use them repeatedly. Scattered throughout a work of fiction, the use of italics for emphasis is perfectly acceptable.

        • The freedom of expression in writing fiction is what pulled me away from doing a weekly newspaper column. With fiction, everything is on the table, as long as you’re effectively communicating your story to the reader. As per your advice, “Grammatically Correct” is on its way to my mailbox. Thanks again, Beth.

    • Roy, the term scare quotes often refers to a handful of uses of quotation marks outside the use of quoting someone, not necessarily to emphasize. The term can refer to the quotation marks around slang and around made-up words and to the quotation marks used to show irony. Such quotation marks are used to imply that the words are being used in a way that’s not normal. (CMOS 7.55)

      You’re right that quotation marks shouldn’t be used for emphasis—we typically use italics for that. I included information on the uses of italics and quotation marks in Marking Text—Choosing Between Italics and Quotation Marks.

  7. Roy says:

    Thank you. I learned something today. A few thing!

  8. Lou Sanders says:

    Beth, if we enclose abbreviations that contain periods inside quotation marks, do the commas go inside after the ending period (as exampled below)? Thank you!

    The abbreviations “etc.,” “et al.,” “a.m.,” and “p.m.” need to be deleted from the passage and replaced by the fully spelled-out words.

    • Lou, for American English (AmE), put the comma inside the closing quotation mark. For British English (BrE), put the comma outside. (For BrE this is true for your example. But for dialogue, you’d put the comma inside the quotation mark, the same as in AmE.)

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