How to Use Commas in Your Essay Successfully

Getting punctuation right is one of the main difficulties students face in academic writing. Commas are meant to clarify your ideas; they help you stress the right words by managing readers’ pauses. English punctuation has a lot of controversial points. In literary works you come across many examples where commas can be placed or omitted depending on the author’s wishes. However, in your essays you should use commas by the book, which leaves you with less freedom, yet it does not tie your hands completely. The Royal Editing company will teach you how to use commas in your essays successfully and avoid your professor’s indignation.

1. You should separate independent clauses by placing a comma before conjunctions and (meaning also), but (opposition), for (referring to a reason), or (alternative), nor (and not), so (referring to a result), yet (referring to an unexpected outcome). If we rearrange them and take the first letter from each conjunction, we will get a great mnemonic abbreviation FANBOYS (f = for, a = and, n = nor, b = but, o = or, y = yet, s = so), which will surely facilitate the process of memorizing. Now let’s get to the examples:

  • Crazy pictures stirred the girl’s imagination, and she was falling in the world of her dreams.
  • I have not watered the flowers, so they may wither pretty soon.
  • The falling snow has covered most of the streets, yet the benches are left untouched.

2. Commas are placed after adverbial clauses that start your sentence. However, when such clauses finish a sentence, they do not require separation.

  • After Chuck’s sister was born, the family started spending more time outdoors. BUT: The family started spending more time outdoors after Chuck’s sister was born.
  • When all-round men go out together, they never get bored. BUT: All-round men never get bored when they go out together.

3. Adjectival clauses starting with the word which are always separated by commas from both sides. Other adjectival clauses may require commas, too, but only in case they are non-essential. We have already discussed this issue in another article.

  • I was standing near an old table, which was covered by thick layers of centenary dust.
  • I heard the voice my dad, who was singing about his motherland. BUT: I liked the boy who was singing about his motherland (an example of an essential clause).

4. Different enumerations are always separated by commas. Here you may come across the so-called Oxford comma, which you encounter in the series of 3 or more elements, before the last conjunction, whether it is and, or or nor. The issue is controversial because some guides present this comma as obligatory, while others direct to omit it. When it comes to essay editing, we will follow your personal instructions based on your supervisor’s preferences as for this punctuation discrepancy.

  • I had a sandwich, a chocolate bar(,) and two glasses of milk for breakfast.
  • Lucy wants several pets, but she has to choose a rabbit, a cat(,) or a hamster.

5. Commas are required between 2 or more adjectives when you can change their order without affecting the meaning. Alternatively, try to insert and between the adjectives: if it makes sense, put a comma, but omit it if the phrase gets absurd.

  • John seemed a confident, decisive man. OR: John seemed a decisive, confident man. OR: John seemed a confident and decisive man.
  • The old blue tram was moving northwardly. (No comma is used because interchanging the adjectives does not make sense, nor does adding the conjunction and.)

6. When the speech is addressed to a particular person or a group of people, then their names/nicknames or titles have to be separated by commas. In this case you stress the recipient of your expression.

  • Christy, may I take your compact powder?
  • Which way would you like to go first, sir?

7. Place commas in sentences starting with participial and infinitive phrases. This comma seems quite obvious because it is additionally stipulated by intonation.

  • Having returned to the country of his childhood, Bran eventually felt coziness (participial phrase).
  • To make your meals nourishing, include vegetables and nuts to your diet (infinitive phrase).

8. You should put commas at the beginning and at the end of absolute phrases and non-essential appositive phrases.

  • Nick, my old school mate, is going to marry soon (non-essential appositive phrase). BUT: My old school mate Nick is going to marry soon (now the name Nick presents essential information).
  • The book, a lowbrow novel about another American hero, did not attract much attention (non-essential appositive phrase).
  • The dog was eating loudly, its tail wagging enthusiastically (absolute phrase).

9. Commas are often needed near the end of sentences when you additionally present contrasted elements or indicate certain nuances. For the most part, these are tag questions and homogeneous parts of the sentence, introduced by adverbs almost, even, not etc.

  • We are leaving tomorrow night, aren’t we?
  • Not to burst out laughing turned out hard for the woman, almost impossible.
  • The forest seemed mysterious in the dawn, even a bit ominous.

10. In the English language commas almost always follow parentheses: words like however, on the contrary, by the way, moreover, nevertheless and so on. The punctuation is not needed only when such words perform the role of an adverb.

  • The students, by the way, managed to submit their projects on time.
  • Jack did not make it to the meeting. However, he apologized on the phone. BUT: However hard Jack tried, he did not make it to the meeting. (A comma is placed after the adverbial clause, but not after the word however directly.)

As you can see, mastering English commas with specialists from Royal Editing is simple and even a bit exciting. You should remember that commas always go along with enumerations, non-essential parts of sentences and independent clauses. English grammar gives you a relative freedom in using commas in some cases, but even then working by intuition can mislead you. Read grammar guides carefully before revising your paper for the purpose of punctuation check. Or leave this dirty work to the professionals from our company, who have vast experience in dealing with both English commas and your academic papers.