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We sometimes have trouble deciding whether or not to follow a sentence’s introductory word, phrase, or clause with a comma. In two particular cases, those of sentence adverbs and conjunctive adverbs, a comma usually does follow the introductory adverb.
We’ll explore both sentence and conjunctive adverbs in a moment, but let’s look at adverbs in general first.
We typically don’t use commas to separate single-word adverbs from the words (verb, adjective, or adverb) they modify.
Examples when no comma is needed—
The happily married woman smiled at her mother-in-law.
The motorcycle accelerated deafeningly before it pulled into traffic.
She sneezed unusually loudly during the mayor’s speech.
Katrina planned to go back again later. (Adverbs of manner, place, and time often go at the ends of clauses. When all three are used, they go in that order—manner, place, and then time. An example—the Smith’s youngest daughter scrubbed floors maniacally at her job last week.)
There is, however, an exception to the practice of not using a comma between an adverb and the word it modifies—with the repetition of adverbs for emphasis. So we do separate two instances of the same adverb with a comma—It was a very, very nasty day.
Some of the fun in playing with adverbs is moving them around a sentence. While adverbs that modify adjectives and other adverbs must come immediately before the adjective or adverb, there are options when an adverb modifies a verb. We can put the adverb near the verb, but we don’t have to. As a matter of fact, we can separate adverbs from their verbs by the length of the sentence.
The following constructions can all work, although perhaps not all of them would work equally well for a particular need.
Quickly she raced to the hospital.
She quickly raced to the hospital.
She raced quickly to the hospital.
She raced to the hospital quickly.
Readers would understand each of these easily, but what if the sentences were longer or more complex? You might lose readers if adverbs were separated from their verbs in such cases.
She raced out of her house, stopping to grab the mail from the box, and toward the hospital wildly. X
Would readers easily understand which word wildly was modifying? Maybe not without a second read. And if readers have to read a sentence multiple times, something is likely wrong with the sentence. Keep adverbs within the clause or phrase when a sentence contains multiple clauses or phrases.
She raced wildly out of her house, stopping to grab the mail from the box, and headed toward the hospital.
While you can be creative with sentence structure and word order, you may not want to make readers wait until the end of a sentence for an adverb that modifies a word early in the sentence.
Let’s consider another example, this one using an adverb of time. Adverbs of time often go at the end of the clause or sentence.
She wanted to see the doctor tomorrow.
She wanted to see the doctor, before meeting with her mother, tomorrow. X
The second sentence doesn’t quite work, does it? Better would be—
She wanted to see the doctor tomorrow, before meeting with her mother.
She wanted to see the doctor—before meeting with her mother—tomorrow.
Note: Without the word tomorrow, we wouldn’t need a comma between doctor and before—we often don’t use a comma to separate an independent clause from a dependent one when the independent one comes first.
She wanted to see the doctor before meeting with her mother.
Yet when we added tomorrow, the dependent clause became nonessential. And that means a comma is required between the clauses.
She wanted to see the doctor tomorrow, before meeting with her mother.
We often use a comma to separate multiword adverbial phrases or clauses from the rest of the sentence when the phrase or clause comes first. In these next examples you’ll recognize a dependent clause, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase, and an infinitive phrase.
When the clock strikes twelve, my dog howls.
Over the course of a very long night, the surgeon operated on three children.
Wanting to earn a place on the podium, the runner accepted the steroids.
To make her decision, Mary studied each option for hours.
The use of commas after prepositional phrases isn’t always straightforward. We use a comma after some prepositional phrases at the beginning of a sentence but not after others. So when do you use a comma and when don’t you? Use a comma after prepositional phrases of five or more words, use a comma to eliminate confusion, and use a comma when a series of prepositional phrases starts the sentence.
On the counter sat a bundle of old letters. (fewer than five words)
From the elevator’s control panel, red paint dripped like blood. (five or more words)
In the contest entries were arranged alphabetically. X (confusing)
In the contest, entries were arranged alphabetically. (Without a comma after contest, readers might assume that contest entries was a unit, with contest modifying entries.)
During drought and famine, in good times and bad, I’ll be there for you. (A series of two prepositional phrases.)
On to sentence adverbs . . .
When an adverb modifies a clause or a complete sentence and not only a single word, we refer to it as a sentence adverb. The sentence adverb isn’t attached to a single adverb, adjective, or verb—it doesn’t need to be physically close to only one particular word—so it usually comes at the beginning of a sentence and is set off by a comma. That comma is a signal that the adverb modifies not the word that follows but the sentence or clause that follows.
Sentence adverbs are different from typical adverbs. They reflect the attitude, opinion, or judgment of the speaker—the author in nonfiction or the viewpoint character in fiction—toward the sentiment expressed in the sentence. This is the writer, speaker, or thinker revealing himself through a word choice. Consider these adverbs to be a single-word commentary.
A few examples—
Incidentally, your father dropped by earlier.
Frankly, I didn’t think he could do it.
Sadly, Cinderella didn’t make it to the ball that year.
These adverbs aren’t modifying the verb or another modifier; they apply to the sentence as a whole.
The father didn’t incidentally drop by.
The first-person narrator didn’t think frankly.
Cinderella didn’t make it to the ball sadly.
These adverbs aren’t modifying a single word, as is typical with most adverbs. They reflect the speaker’s opinion. They reflect the attitude of the person making the observation.
Sentence adverbs can go at the end of a sentence or clause rather than at the beginning. In the end position, they may come across as an afterthought or parenthetical. This use at the end of a clause may create a more informal feel to the sentence.
I didn’t think he could do it, frankly.
Sentence adverbs can also be used midsentence or midclause. These often sound or feel like asides murmured quietly or delivered with attitude.
Jacques Chanel pushed the experimental plane too hard and, unfortunately, crashed into the desert.
The aging lothario, presumably, was the owner of the Viagra collection.
Putting the sentence adverb in the middle of the sentence is a good choice when a sentence contains multiple clauses and the sentence adverb applies to only one of them.
Sadly, the man’s wife died and he inherited millions. X
The word sadly likely doesn’t refer both to the wife’s death and to the fact that the man inherited millions, even though this sentence construction indicates that it does. You want to be careful that a sentence adverb actually modifies the whole sentence. If it doesn’t, rewrite.
Sadly, the man’s wife died, and he inherited millions. (A comma between the independent clauses may be all the change that’s needed.)
The man’s wife died, sadly, and he inherited millions. (This construction also works.)
Some adverbs can be used as regular adverbs, to modify another word, and also as sentence adverbs. When an adverb is used midsentence, use a comma only for sentence adverbs modifying the entire clause. When the adverb is modifying a word, it doesn’t need a comma.
Oddly, I hadn’t thought of that option.
He looked at me, oddly, as though I’d done something heinous. X
He looked at me oddly, as though I’d done something heinous.
There are exceptions, of course, to the convention of not using commas with regular adverbs midsentence. When you want to create that feel of a parenthetical or aside for a regular adverb, or you want to change where the accent falls in a sentence, you can do so by using commas (or dashes). Personally, I find the dashes a better choice for this purpose.
The chef meticulously arranged the ingredients for the first seven-course meal he’d planned for the restaurant’s new owner.
The chef, quite meticulously, arranged the ingredients for the first seven-course meal he’d planned for the restaurant’s new owner.
The chef—quite meticulously—arranged the ingredients for the first seven-course meal he’d planned for the restaurant’s new owner.
While some adverbs can modify individual words and operate as sentence adverbs (although not at the same time), some cannot. Suddenly typically isn’t used as a sentence adverb. Therefore it usually doesn’t require a comma, even when it’s used as the first word in a sentence. No comma is required for any of the following sentences. Suddenly is modifying the verb in these sentences.
Suddenly the rain poured down.
The rain suddenly poured down.
The rain poured down suddenly.
When you want to put an adverb in the opening position, determine whether it’s a sentence adverb or a regular adverb used to modify a verb, an adverb that just happens to come first in the sentence. Use a comma after sentence adverbs but skip it after adverbs modifying verbs.
A partial list of sentence adverbs—
hopefully—yes, hopefully can be used as a sentence adverb
thankfully—yes, thankfully can be used as a sentence adverb
Another group of words also operate as sentence adverbs, yet they aren’t opinion adverbs. If there’s a special name for these adverbs, I don’t know what it is. The folks at Oxford Dictionaries online say these particular sentence adverbs “place the sentence in a particular context.”
The adverbs in this list could easily be followed by the word speaking—politically speaking, generally speaking, scientifically speaking. Follow them with commas when they’re used at the beginnings of sentences. Keep in mind that some of these can also be used as regular adverbs to modify individual words.
Alphabetically, I comes before M.
He arranged his files alphabetically.
Medically, there was no hope.
The coma was medically induced.
Religiously, his answer made sense.
He religiously washed his car every Tuesday.
Generally [speaking], men don’t seek death for no reason.
Generally Brad didn’t enjoy musicals.
A partial list of these “contextual” sentence adverbs—
Conjunctive adverbs are one more type of adverb that can function as sentence adverbs.
A common use for them is to connect independent clauses within a sentence. When used for this purpose, the conjunctive adverb follows a semicolon and is followed by a comma.
Dudley didn’t like beans; however, he ate them in order to get his favorite dessert.
Santa forgot to feed the reindeer; consequently, presents weren’t delivered until December 28.
Conjunctive adverbs can also come at the beginning of a sentence, connecting not two independent clauses in one sentence but two sentences. When they come at the beginning of a sentence, they’re sentence adverbs and they’re followed by a comma.
Pat lost the instructions. Moreover, no one knew how to operate the danged machine.
My sister couldn’t go with me to France. Still, she enthusiastically wished me a bon voyage.
Being adverbs, conjunctive adverbs can also fall midclause or at the end of a clause.
Needing to see for herself, however, Pam went to the cemetery.
The cookies, moreover, were all gone.
The boys, of course, denied eating them.
The two-year-olds were the guilty party, in fact.
While commas are used with conjunctive adverbs most of the time, there are exceptions.
When a conjunctive adverb is used to interrupt a clause rather than join two clauses or two sentences, you could omit the comma if you’re not stressing the interruption, if the interruption itself is a weak one.
The oldest boy was indeed his father’s heir.
She therefore wanted to know if I could babysit.
His sister Eleanor was a nun also.
A few conjunctive adverbs are always separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma because the interruption is always a strong one.
She, however, was always late.
She was always late, however.
However, she was always late.
Note: When however means no matter how, commas aren’t required.
However you approach the problem, someone will be hurt.
Someone will be hurt however you approach the problem.
A partial list of conjunctive adverbs—
in other words
then (and then)
This article ended up covering more than I’d intended to cover, yet the topics are closely related. And while the details are technical, the topic is one every writer should explore.
In short, we usually don’t use commas before or after regular adverbs modifying verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. We do, however, typically use commas between sentence adverbs and the rest of a sentence.
If you can’t determine whether an adverb at the beginning of the sentence needs a comma and you’re not sure what the adverb is modifying, try moving it. If it modifies a verb, you may want to move it away from the beginning of the sentence and closer to the verb anyway. Yet you don’t have to move it since adverbs modifying verbs can go in multiple places within a sentence. But move it temporarily if only to figure out whether it needs a comma or not.
Use adverbs and commas to fine-tune your sentences, to produce highly specific meanings at the sentence level. Explore multiple ways to convey your meaning, even to moving words around in your sentences.