What You Should Know About Correctly Placed Commas
For the Christian author wanting to self-publish a book or books, quality (besides good content) should be a priority. Correctly placed commas are an important aspect of excellent writing. Even if you plan to hire a book editor, which is one of two simple steps to improving your manuscript, you should do your own self-editing as part of the writing process.
One of the most common issues I have seen as an editing teacher and the production manager for a student publication is misused or missing commas. When it comes to comma issues, some indie authors err on the side of too much caution and end up with sentences that are hard to follow. Other writers add too many commas or use them in place of semicolons, colons, or dashes; either mistake can confuse readers. So, when should you use commas? Here are five key times to include a comma (or a pair of commas) in your writing.
When to place commas
1. After an introductory element in a sentence.
Many English sentences have the subject written before the verb. Though this can change, it is often a writer’s go-to pattern. When a phrase or clause introduces the subject and verb (in that order), include a comma after that introductory element. Notice the following three examples:
• With camera in hand, Nathan looked like a true tourist.
• Though they don’t look much alike, Henry and A.J. are indeed twins.
• Having grown up in Columbus, Brittany knows a shortcut to the lake.
One thing to keep in mind is that if the sentence contains an introductory phrase (a group of words without a subject and verb), the phrase should typically describe the subject. In the last example, having grown up in Columbus should describe the subject Brittany (which it does, so we’re good!).
2. With items in a series.
When you have three or more items—whether words or phrases—written as a series, include a comma between each item when one or more conjunctions have been omitted. However, if your series has a conjunction, such as and, between each item, you don’t need the commas. Here are a few examples:
• They visited Savannah, Charleston, and Edisto Island during their vacation.
• The librarian read a book, passed out a craft, and sang songs during story time.
• BUT: To make money, the teen walked dogs and washed cars and worked at a diner.
In addition to not using commas in the last example, some writers choose to leave the comma off between the last two items in a series even when a conjunction has been deleted (such as after Charleston and craft in the above examples. This comma is referred to as the Oxford comma. Though many styles support using the Oxford comma, you may want to check with whichever style guide you are following to be consistent.
One more thing to note is that the items in your series should be parallel or similar in form. Avoid switching between gerunds (such as sewing) and infinitives (such as to bake) in the same series. In the sentence Harvey enjoys fishing, camping, and he likes to travel, the list switches from one-word items to a clause; this sentence would be much stronger as Harvey enjoys fishing, camping, and traveling.
3. With a coordinating conjunction to separate two independent clauses.
A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a verb; it is considered independent when it feels complete and can stand on its own as a sentence. Coordinating conjunctions include words such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so (though so isn’t typically the best option). When you have two independent clauses, include a comma before your coordinating conjunction between the clauses.
• Nadia bought the book yesterday, and she has already finished reading it.
• The food truck opens at 11 o’clock, and it is busy by 11:05.
• Dinner is ready, but we are waiting for more guests to arrive.
4. With a parenthetical phrase.
Though there are various types of parenthetical phrases, you can often recognize the phrase as being additional, confirmatory, or an aside in the sentence. A parenthetical phrase differs from a clarifying phrase that is considered essential to the sentence. Note that if you include a parenthetical phrase in the middle of the sentence, you should include a comma before and after the phrase.
• What Dr. O’Grady meant, in other words, is that parents help children by limiting their screen time.
• The best way to get to the hotel, in my opinion, is to take Main Street to Broad Avenue.
• BUT: The person tending this garden does an amazing job.
Tending this garden is not a parenthetical phrase because it identifies which person does an amazing job. In other words, the phrase limits person in a vital way.
5. After a line of spoken dialogue followed by a speaker tag.
If you want a story’s dialogue to look professional, use correct punctuation to set it apart from narration and exposition. Dialogue followed by a speaker tag should include a comma inside the closing quotation marks unless you have a reason for using a question mark or exclamation point. Notice the following example:
“The recital is on Saturday,” Mallory said. “I’ll be playing the very first piece.”
The speaker tag for the above example is Mallory said. Other common speaker tags include asked or responded. Words such as murmured, muttered, shouted, and whispered can also work as speaker tags because they deal with how the dialogue sounds. While writers can use words other than said or asked, they should use these speaker tags sparingly. No matter the type you use, be careful not to overuse speaker tags.
To avoid dialogue that feels repetitive and boring, writers often break up dialogue with action beats. Action beats, unlike speaker tags, do not deal with how the words sound; one of the many benefits of action beats is that they can reveal who is talking while also showing what the speaker is doing. For example:
“That’s cool.” Kirsten looked up from her book and smirked. “I guess I can’t be late then.”
Because the word cool is followed by an action beat (looked up), a period is a better choice than a comma before the closing quotation marks.
The Need for Memorization and Practice
Poor editing is one common mistake that many self-publishing authors make. Though you will still probably hire an editor to help you improve your writing, you can save time (and possibly money) by carefully editing first. As you work on improving your comma skills, keep in mind that you’ve got to memorize the rules of the style guide you follow. As you read, look for correct comma usage, and after you’ve written a draft, carefully reread your work to see where you may need to add or delete a comma.
About the Author
Jennifer Miller writes stories, books, and devotions for kids and teens. She is a member of Word Weavers and teaches writing and editing courses at a private college. When not writing or teaching, she can usually be found spending time with her husband and three children, practicing her sewing skills, or cheering on her kids at sports events. You can see more about what she is writing at