Open Government at the National Archives

Comma or no comma? That is the question, he said.

This week's tip comes to us from our publisher Jim Worsham, who is a man with great comma sense.

One of the biggest problems for some writers is deciding where to put commas and where NOT to put them.

Some writers think they have to use them to set off everything ("comma kings and queens"), while others barely use them at all. Still other writers put them in all the wrong places.

So let's end some of your dilemmas and look at some of the most common comma errors.

1. Do not use a comma between the subject and verb of a sentence.

WRONG: The student who got the award, studied an average of eight hours a day. (Student is subject; studied is verb. Comma is between them.)

RIGHT: The student who got the award studied an average of eight hours a day. (Notice no comma here)

You would, however, have commas in a case like this where the commas are merely setting off a description of the student:

The student who got the award, a senior from Minnesota, studied an average of eight hours a day.

2. Do not use a comma when the subject has two verbs.

WRONG: President Obama addressed Congress, and called for higher taxes for the wealthy.

RIGHT: President Obama addressed Congress and called for higher taxes for the wealthy.

3. Use a comma at the end of a date.

WRONG: The Civil Rights Act was signed on July 2, 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson.

RIGHT: The Civil Rights Act was signed on July 2, 1964, by President Lyndon Johnson.

However, do NOT use it when you're only saying July 1964.

4. Use a comma after place names using states or counties.

WRONG: The rally on June 16 in Cedar Rapids, IA was attended by nearly 10,000 Democrats.

RIGHT: The rally on June 16 in Cedar Rapids, IA, was attended by nearly 10,000 Democrats.

5. Use a comma before “and” when listing a series.

WRONG: The delegation was made up of students from the University of Maryland, Duke and the Citadel.

RIGHT: The delegation was made up of students from the University of Maryland, Duke, and the Citadel.

6. Use commas to lead into or out of direct quotes.

WRONG: The Archivist said "Records and access to them are vital in a democracy."’

RIGHT: The Archivist said, "Records and access to them are vital in a democracy."’

WRONG: "Records and access to them are vital in a democracy" the Archivist said.

RIGHT: "Records and access to them are vital in a democracy," the Archivist said.

Note: the comma goes inside the closing quotation mark.

7. Use a comma after clauses and phrases that introduce a sentence.

WRONG: After three years on the force Officer Smith was promoted to detective.

RIGHT: After three years on the force, Officer Smith was promoted to detective.

8. Use a comma between adjectives that are not joined by “and.”

WRONG: The doctor is an intelligent caring thoughtful person.

If you mean to say the doctor is intelligent and caring and thoughtful, use commas as below:

RIGHT: The doctor is an intelligent, caring, thoughtful person.

But don't put commas between several adjectives that don’t modify the noun separately.

RIGHT: Two big red stretch limos were waiting in at the curb to take us to the dance.

9. Don’t use commas when you are ending a sentence with an exclamation point or question mark.

WRONG: “Does anyone have any questions about what we just discussed,?" the instructor asked.

RIGHT: “Does anyone have any questions about what we just discussed?" the instructor asked.


Do you have any examples to add to this list? If so, please share them with us! Email plainwriting@nara.gov

Top of Page

PDF files require the free Adobe Reader.
More information on Adobe Acrobat PDF files is available on our Accessibility page.

Open Government at the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.