How to Rock the Comma in 3 Easy Rules!

On the internet, my persona is “Vocab Gal” and my brother’s is “Mr. GovLoop,” which leads one to the idea that our parents instilled in us a love of words and the feds, which is rather true. My mother and I are both teachers, and my brother and father both government men (my father worked for the IRS –feel free to check out his Govloop blog here).

Today I’m excited to begin a series of blog posts on improving the most basic aspects of communication in the government- correct comma usage, precise wording, proper grammar, quick revisions-all the nuances of writing that will make you appear on paper/computer screen as awesome as you are in person. As a humble request, I would appreciate your sharing my blog address with your favorite teachers-whether they be relatives, friends or your children’s educators (K through college). It’s a totally free resource for teachers, and I’m trying to get the word out.

So today’s subject is the comma –a little mark that can be quite frustrating in terms of when and where to apply properly. I have three easy rules to cut through all your grammar confusion so that you too can rock the comma!

(Note: I’m assuming that readers know the “items in a series” rule: when you are listing items out in a series of 3 or more, each item is separated by a comma. These three rules are to help with the more confusing aspects of the comma).

Rule #1: If a sentence starts with one of these words, after, although, as, because, before, by, even, if, now that, once, since, though, unless, when, while, place a comma after the initial phrase:

Example: Because John forgot to set his alarm last night, he missed the Metro again.

(introductory phrase that starts with ‘because), full sentence.


1) As soon as Sarah heard the news she told Steve.

2) When Huxley jumped in the car he wanted to drive.

3) While not everyone likes meetings we certainly do!

4) I like to eat apples and bananas.

*I bet you got all those right; all but #4 needed a comma after the introductory phrase, because it started with one of the words I just told you. Way to follow the rule-isn’t this easy?


Rule #2: If there is a full sentence that can STAND ALONE to the left of the word and/or/for/so/yet/but/because AND to the right of the and/or/for/so/yet…, there should be a comma.

John forgot to set his alarm last night, so he missed the Metro again.

(full sentence that could stand alone) (full sentence that could stand alone)


5) Steve loves playing golf but Sarah can barely swing a club.

6) Sarah loves eating chocolate chip cookies and Chad loves buying them for her.

7) Rowan, Simon, and Hux all love writing reports and reading flowcharts.

*Again, the first two sentences need commas, the third does not. I find rule #2 the most “aha moment”, because for years I would always be afraid that if there was an “and” there should be a comma. Now I know; if there is a full sentence to the left AND right of the “and”, it gets a comma –otherwise, don’t do it (back away excessive comma users)!

Rule #3: If the information isn’t needed in the sentence, put commas around it.

John, who is on the verge of work suspension, missed the Metro again.

Independent, (nonessential information), sentence

John missed the Metro again this morning, as he does most mornings.

Independent sentence, (nonessential information)

FIX any that need fixing:

8) Mr. Hering a wise and benevolent boss postponed the meeting

9) Ms. Ressler’s desk a large wooden behemoth remains a tribute to the previous generation of managers before her.

10) I really needed to write up that cost analysis I started last Friday in order to receive a raise.

*Numbers 8 and 9 need commas; number 10 is a little tricky, but because we need to know which cost analysis you are writing up, there are no commas used.

Try out all the rules together:

11) While I enjoy salsa dancing I prefer Latin Fusion a class that plays 70% hip hop.

12) When Mr. Hering and Ms. Ressler both great managers went to Philadelphia they enjoyed meeting new colleagues and attending sessions.

13) Mr. Hering bakes fabulous bread of both oat and raisin varieties and he loves to share it with his neighbors.

14) Ms. Ressler likes to read research reports but she really loves to ponder her greatness as a manager and her love of the federal government.


11) While I enjoy salsa dancing, (Rule 1) I prefer Latin Fusion, (Rule 3) a class that plays 70% hip hop.

12) When Mr. Hering and Ms. Ressler, (Rule 3)both great managers (Rule 3), went to Philadelphia, (Rule 1) they enjoyed meeting new colleagues and attending sessions.

13) Mr. Hering bakes fabulous bread, (Rule 3) of both oat and raisin varieties (Rule 3), (Rule 2) and he loves to share it with his neighbors.

14) Ms. Ressler likes to read research reports, (Rule 2) but she really loves to ponder her greatness as a manager and her love of the federal government.

Hope that solves your comma quandaries; look forward to my next post that explains the semi-colon in one easy rule!

My best-Vocabgal!

P.S. Check out my latest blog: How I Roll with Semicolons

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Paul Wolf

I teach a legal research and writing class to paralegal students. How to use commas correctly was one of the items that students were looking to improve. I will share your post with my class on Monday night!

Sarah Ressler Wright

Paul-I’m thrilled my comma help will help paralegals (I can tell my high school students that the tips I give them also apply to professional school!)

Thanks! Vocabgal Sarah

Sarah Ressler Wright

Thanks Serena-so nice to hear positive feedback! It took me a long time to figure out the comma rules myself (and I’m supposed to be the expert), so I try to break them down in the way that I finally understood them.

Dorothy Ramienski Amatucci

This is so great. As a former journo, I am continually SHOCKED about the number of people who were never taught proper grammar. I look forward to this series!

Chris Higginbotham

As someone who has spent the last ten years wishing that Freelance Editor were a real job title, I’m very excited to keep reading your posts.

That said, beware the comma splice, everyone…

Camille Roberts

Great post, Sarah! Glad to see you agree with using the comma before “and” in a series. Yay! I clicked on your Vocabgal link a couple of times and got a page not found error. Thought you might like to know. Looking forward to more of your posts.

Corey McCarren

My biggest issue is when to replace a comma with a dash, but other than that I’ve been pretty good with the comas! I think another topic for a different post would be how to use “and” or “but” to start a sentence. I feel as if it shows mature sentence structure.

Sarah Ressler Wright

Thanks Chris and Camille for the positive feedback!

Camille-when I clicked on the link to vocabgal it worked for me, but the address is simply so hopefully you can cut and paste if the link isn’t working; thank you for letting me know and for attempting to go to the site!

Corey-the dash is more informal (note my uses so far), and tends to show a bigger break than simply a comma. I like what “Grammar Girl” has to say about the differences:

In general, you can think of parentheses, commas, and dashes as a continuum of marks. Parentheses are the quiet whisper of an aside, commas are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk, and dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray.” -from her website

I encourage everyone to check out Grammar Girl if they have a question that I do not end up addressing; I really like her stuff, but I find that I still want a more direct answer sometimes-thus my blog series for all of you!

Camille Roberts

Hi Sarah,
I was able to get to it by manually keying in the www and com. I should have written that in my comment. I LOVE Grammar Girl. Been subscribing to her for years. It is really good and great reminders. I really liked her post about who and whom, but I still have to stop and think. 😉

Raymond Clark

Nice! I, really, love, this, blog! All kiding aside, this will be very useful for my DoD compatriates. I am sending your blog link to everyone I know. Thanks!

Shannon Donelson

This is such a wonderful post! I think we all forget from time to time what we learned in school long long ago! Always good to have as a refresher when you write emails every day!

Sarah Ressler Wright

Thank you everyone for the excellent feedback!

Dick-glad you enjoy my dad’s blog too (my favorite is the one about how most meetings involve a great deal of mental masturbation :).

Shannon-I totally agree that we learn so much in school, and if we don’t practice what we learn, we forget!

Juanita-In most circumstances, commas and periods (and question marks and exclamation marks) go before the quote.

For example: In the briefing, Mary remarked, “We need to use the formula from Govloop to track our travel expenses.”

Example 2: When taking out of context, Alex’s remark that, “The budget just doesn’t mean anything,” could be quite problematic.

Paper citation: According to the Forbes study on Genetics, “there are 12 million people who could benefit from genetic screenings,” (1993, p.34). -Note, I totally just made up that study & statistic.

If you want further details on the extreme exceptions to the rule, check out the Grammar Girl post here.

Raymond: Thanks, I, really, appreciate, your, feedback! (ahh-so hard to not follow the rules as an English teacher).