English in Use/Commas
|General||Contents • Introduction|
|Parts of speech||Articles • Nouns • Verbs • Gerunds and participles • Pronouns • Adjectives • Adverbs • Prepositions, Conjunctions and Interjections|
|Other topics||Orthography • Punctuation • Syntax • Figures of Syntax • Glossary|
The comma is used to separate those parts of a sentence, which are so nearly connected in sense, as to be only one degree removed from that close connection which admits no point.
Appositives are always separated from the main body of the sentence by punctuation, usually commas, but sometimes—when greater separation is desired—dashes are used.
Words in apposition, especially if they have adjuncts, are generally set off by the comma: as,
- "He that now calls upon you, is Theodore, the hermit of Teneriffe."—Johnson.
- "Lowth, Dr. Robert, bishop of London, born in 1710, died in 1787."—Biog. Dict.
- "Home, Henry, lord Kames."—Ib.
- "What next I bring shall please you, be assured, your likeness, your fit help, your other self, your wish exactly to your heart's desire."—Milton, P. L., viii, 450.
- "And he, their prince, shall rank among my peers."—Byron.
Adjectives, when something depends on them, or when they have the import of a dependent clause, should, with their adjuncts, be set off by the comma: as,
- "Among the roots of hazel, pendent over the plaintive stream, they frame the first foundation of their domes."—Thomson.
- "Up springs the lark, shrill-voiced and loud, the messenger of morn."—Id.
Adjective which follows its noun
When an adjective immediately follows its noun, and is taken in a restrictive sense, the comma should not be used before it: as,
- "And on the coast averse from entrance or cherubic watch."—Milton, P. L., B. ix, l. 68.
Where a finite verb is understood, a comma is generally required: as,
- "From law arises security; from security, curiosity; from curiosity, knowledge."—Murray.
- "Else all my prose and verse were much the same; this, prose on stilts; that, poetry fallen lame."—Pope.
A pause for the omitted verb
As the semicolon must separate the clauses when the comma is inserted by this rule, if the pause for the omitted verb be very slight, it may be left unmarked, and the comma be used for the clauses: as,
- "When the profligate speaks of piety, the miser of generosity, the coward of valour, and the corrupt of integrity, they are only the more despised by those who know them."—Comstock's Elocution, p. 132.
The infinitive, when it follows a verb from which it must be separated, or when it depends on something remote or understood, is generally, with its adjuncts, set off by the comma: as,
- "One of the greatest secrets in composition is, to know when to be simple."—Jamieson's Rhet., p. 151. [?]
- "To confess the truth, I was much in fault."—Murray's Gram., p. 271.
- "The Governor of all—has interposed, not seldom, his avenging arm, to smite the injurious trampler upon nature's law."—Cowper.
Participles, when something depends on them, when they have the import of a dependent clause, or when they relate to something understood, should, with their adjuncts, be set off by the comma: as,
- "Law is a rule of civil conduct, prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right, and prohibiting what is wrong."—Blackstone: Beattie's Moral Science, p. 346.
- "Young Edwin, lighted by the evening star, lingering and listening wandered down the vale."—Beattie.
- "United, we stand; divided, we fall."—Motto.
- "Properly speaking, there is no such thing as chance."
Participle which follows its noun
When a participle immediately follows its noun, and is taken in a restrictive sense, the comma should not be used before it: as,
- "A man renowned for repartee, will seldom scruple to make free with friendship's finest feeling."—Cowper.
Adverbs, when they break the connection of a simple sentence, or when they have not a close dependence on some particular word in the context, should, with their adjuncts, be set off by the comma: as,
- "We must not, however, confound this gentleness with the artificial courtesy of the world."
- "Besides, the mind must be employed."—Gilpin.
- "Most unquestionably, no fraud was equal to all this."—Lyttelton.
- "But, unfortunately for us, the tide was ebbing already."
- "When buttress and buttress, alternately, seem framed of ebon and ivory."—Scott's Lay, p. 33.
Conjunctions, when they are separated from the principal clauses that depend on them, or when they introduce examples, are generally set off by the comma: as,
- "But, by a timely call upon religion, the force of habit was eluded."—Johnson.
- "They know the neck that joins the shore and sea, or, ah! how changed that fearless laugh would be."—Crabbe.
Prepositions and their objects, when they break the connection of a simple sentence, or when they do not closely follow the words on which they depend, are generally set off by the comma: as,
- "Fashion is, for the most part, nothing but the ostentation of riches."
- "By reading, we add the experience of others to our own."
- "In vain the sage, with retrospective eye, would from the apparent what conclude the why."—Pope.
Interjections that require a pause, though more commonly emphatic and followed by the ecphoneme, are sometimes set off by the comma: as,
- "For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north."—Jeremiah, i, 15.
- "O, it was about something you would not understand."—Columbian Orator, p. 221.
- "Ha, ha! you were finely taken in, then!"—Aikin.
- "Ha, ha, ha! A facetious gentleman, truly!"—Id.
- "Oh, when shall Britain, conscious of her claim, stand emulous of Greek and Roman fame?"—Pope.
Words emphatically repeated
A word emphatically repeated, is generally set off by the comma: as,
- "Happy, happy, happy pair!"—Dryden.
- "Ay, ay, there is some comfort in that."—Shak.
- "Ah! no, no, no."—Dryden.
- "The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket, the moss-covered bucket, which hung in the well!"—Woodworth.
A quotation, observation, or description, when it is introduced in close dependence on a verb, (as, say, reply, cry, or the like,) is generally separated from the rest of the sentence by the comma: as,
- "'The book of nature,' said he, 'is before you.'"—Hawkesworth.
- "I say to all, watch."—Mark.
- "'The boy has become a man,' means, 'He has grown to be a man.' 'Such conduct becomes a man,' means, 'Such conduct befits him.'"—Hart's Gram., p. 116.
- "While man exclaims, 'See all things for my use!' 'See man for mine!' replies a pampered goose."—Pope.
Words put absolute
Nouns or pronouns put absolute, should, with their adjuncts, be set off by the comma: as,
- "The prince, his father being dead, succeeded."
- "This done, we parted."
- "Zaccheus, make haste and come down."
- "His proctorship in Sicily, what did it produce?"—Cicero.
- "Winged with his fears, on foot he strove to fly, his steeds too distant, and the foe too nigh."—Pope, Iliad, xi, 440.
More than two words
When more than two words or terms are connected in the same construction, or in a joint dependence on some other term, by conjunctions expressed or understood, the comma should be inserted after every one of them but the last; and, if they are nominatives before a verb, the comma should follow the last also: as,
- "Who, to the enraptured heart, and ear, and eye, teach beauty, virtue, truth, and love, and melody."—Beattie.
- "Ah! what avails... all that art, fortune, enterprise, can bring, if envy, scorn, remorse, or pride, the bosom wring?"—Id.
- "Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible; you, stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless."—Shak.
- "She plans, provides, expatiates, triumphs there."—Young.
- "So eagerly the fiend over bog, or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare, with head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way, and swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies."—Milton.
Only two words
When only two words or terms are connected by a conjunction, they should not be separated by the comma: as,
- "It is a stupid and barbarous way to extend dominion by arms; for true power is to be got by arts and industry"—Spectator, No. 2.
- "Despair and anguish fled the struggling soul."—Goldsmith.
Two words with several adjuncts
When the two words connected have several adjuncts, or when one of them has an adjunct that relates not to both, the comma is inserted: as,
- "I shall spare no pains to make their instruction agreeable, and their diversion useful."—Spectator, No. 10.
- "Who is applied to persons, or things personified."—Bullions.
- "With listless eyes the dotard views the store, he views, and wonders that they please no more."—Johnson.
Contrasted words or phrases
When two connected words or phrases are contrasted, or emphatically distinguished, the comma is inserted: as,
- "The vain are easily obliged, and easily disobliged."—Kames.
- "Liberal, not lavish, is kind nature's hand."—Beattie.
- "It is certain he could write, and cipher too."—Goldsmith.
Alternative of names
When there is merely an alternative of names, or an explanatory change of terms, the comma is usually inserted: as,
- "We saw a large opening, or inlet."—W. Allen.
- "Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles?"—Cor., ix, 5.
When the conjunction is understood, the comma is inserted; and, if two separated words or terms refer alike to a third term, the second requires a second comma: as,
- "Reason, virtue, answer one great aim."—L. Murray, Gram., p. 269.
- "To him the church, the realm, their powers consign."—Johnson.
- "She thought the isle that gave her birth. The sweetest, wildest land on earth."—Hogg.
Words in pairs
When successive words are joined in pairs by conjunctions, they should be separated in pairs by the comma: as,
- "Interest and ambition, honour and shame, friendship and enmity, gratitude and revenge, are the prime movers in public transactions."—W. Allen.
- "But, whether ingenious or dull, learned or ignorant, clownish or polite, every innocent man, without exception, has as good a right to liberty as to life."—Beattie's Moral Science, p. 313.
- "Then say how hope and fear, desire and hate, overspread with snares the crowded maze of fate."—Dr. Johnson.
A compound name
When several words, in their common order, are used as one compound name, the comma is not inserted: as,
- "Dr. Samuel Johnson,"
- "Publius Gavius Cosanus."
United common and proper name
When a common and a proper name are closely united, the comma is not inserted: as,
- "The brook Kidron,"
- "The river Don,"
- "The empress Catharine,"
- "Paul the Apostle."
A mere emphasis and distinction
When a pronoun is added to an other word merely for emphasis and distinction, the comma is not inserted: as,
- "You men of Athens,"
- "I myself,"
- "You flaming minister,"
- "You princes."
Name acquired by action or relation
When a name acquired by some action or relation, is put in apposition with a preceding noun or pronoun, the comma is not inserted: as,
- "I made the ground my bed;"
- "To make him king;"
- "Whom they revered as God;"
- "With modesty your guide."—Pope.
A simple sentence does not, in general, admit the comma: as,
- "The weakest reasoners are the most positive."—W. Allen's Gram., p. 202.
- "Theology has not hesitated to make or support a doctrine by the position of a comma."—Tract on Tone, p. 4.
- "Then pain compels the impatient soul to seize on promised hopes of instantaneous ease."—Crabbe.
Nominative accompanied by adjuncts
When the nominative in a long simple sentence is accompanied by inseparable adjuncts, or when several words together are used instead of a nominative, a comma should be placed immediately before the verb: as,
- "Confession of sin without amendment, obtains no pardon."—Dillwyn's Reflections, p. 6.
- "To be totally indifferent to praise or censure, is a real defect in character."—Murray's Gram., p. 268.
- "O that the tenor of my just complaint, were sculpt with steel in rocks of adamant!"—Sandys.
The simple members of a compound sentence, whether successive or involved, elliptical or complete, are generally divided by the comma: as,
- "Here stand we both, and aim we at the best."—Shak.
- "I, that did never weep, now melt in woe."—Id.
- "Tide life, tide death, I come without delay."—Id.
- "I am their mother, who shall bar me from them?"—Id.
- "How wretched, were I mortal, were my state!"—Pope.
- "Go; while you may, avoid the dreadful fate."—Id.
- "Grief aids disease, remembered folly stings, and his last sighs reproach the faith of kings."—Johnson.
Relative that follows its antecedent
When a relative immediately follows its antecedent, and is taken in a restrictive sense, the comma should not be introduced before it: as,
- "For the things which are seen, are temporal; but the things which are not seen, are eternal."—2 Cor., iv, 18.
- "A letter is a character that expresses a sound without any meaning."—St. Quentin's General Gram., p. 3.
Closely connected simple members
When the simple members are short, and closely connected by a conjunction or a conjunctive adverb, the comma is generally omitted: as,
- "Honest poverty is better than wealthy fraud."—Dillwyn's Ref., p. 11.
- "Let him tell me whether the number of the stars be even or odd."—Taylor: Joh. Dict., w.
- "It is impossible that our knowledge of words should outstrip our knowledge of things."—Campbell: Murray's Gram., p 359.
Simple immediately united members
When two simple members are immediately united, through ellipsis of the relative, the antecedent, or the conjunction that, the comma is not inserted: as,
- "Make an experiment on the first man you meet."—Berkley's Alciphron, p. 125.
- "Our philosophers do infinitely despise and pity whoever shall propose or accept any other motive to virtue."—Ib., p. 126.
- "It is certain we imagine before we reflect."—Ib., p. 359.
- "The same good sense that makes a man excel, still makes him doubt he never has written well."—Young.
- The organization of this chapter was adapted from the 1977 edition of Building English Skills Handbook by McDougal, Litell & Company.
- A part of the text in this article, was taken from the public domain English grammar "The Grammar of English Grammars" by Goold Brown, 1851.