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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Commas

The Grammar Grind: Clauses and Phrases – Part 2

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

For Part 2 of my “Clauses and Phrases” post (Part 1 can be found here), I’ll be focusing on phrases. Like clauses, phrases help connect ideas. They also expand on them and give details that otherwise wouldn’t be known. Phrase placement and what to include are the biggest factors in writing fiction and nonfiction pieces. Manipulation of phrases is essential to good writing and can provide readers with subtle hints.

What Is a Phrase?

A phrase is a group of related words within a sentence that functions as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or preposition. They contain a subject or a predicate but never both. They cannot stand on their own and function as a small element of the overall sentence.

Phrase Types

There are seven basic types of phrases. Each type functions as a different part of speech and typically modifies a noun. However, as in the case of an absolute phrase, phrases can sometimes modify the entire sentence.

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase consists of a noun and any other related words that modify it. This can include articles, adjectives, and even other phrases. The entire noun phrase functions as a noun in the overall sentence and can be used as the subject or an object.

Example A: The girl in the yellow hat walked through the park. Example B: We visited the newly constructed movie theater.

Within the category of noun phrase, there are three subtypes: appositive, gerund, and infinitive phrases. Each functions as specialized noun phrase.

Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase renames another noun in the overall sentence—usually one that immediately precedes it. It acts as a parenthetical phrase that often further explains the noun that it modifies, so it is considered nonessential to the sentence and should be set off with commas.

Example: My neighbor’s cat, a large Maine Coon, greets me whenever I come to visit.

Gerund Phrase

A gerund phrase consists of an –ing verb (a gerund) and other modifiers. The whole phrase then acts as a noun in the overall sentence. A gerund can act as a subject, an object, and sometimes an appositive.

Example A: Baking cakes is one of my hobbies. Example B: My dad likes to go fishing on the weekend. Example C: My lifelong passion, becoming a writer, has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase uses the word “to” and the simple form of a verb with other modifiers to create a phrase. The phrase then can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb within the overall sentence.

Be careful not to confuse an infinitive phrase with a prepositional one though. “To” is indeed a common preposition, which usually heads a prepositional phrase; however, an infinitive phrase will always use a simple verb with the word “to” to create the phrase. A prepositional phrase will not.

Example A: I love to eat cookies. Example B: Her plans to hang out with friends changed after she got her assignments for the day. Example C: He drove to the store to shop for groceries.

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is simply a main verb and its auxiliary or helping verbs (a verb group). However, it can also consist of other modifiers, so it can potentially refer to the entire predicate of a sentence.

Example A: He is tying a knot. Example B: We have been volunteering at a local shelter. (“Have been volunteering” is the main verb group in this sentence.)

Adverbial Phrase

An adverbial phrase consists of adverbs or another group of words (usually a prepositional phrase) that functions as an adverb in a sentence. In other words, it modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.

Example A: The curtain closed very slowly at the end of the show. Example B: The apple rolled under the table.

Adjectival Phrase

An adjectival phrase consists of adjectives and any modifiers or another group of words that functions as an adjective in a sentence. Adjective phrases always modify nouns.

Example A: The big red ball bounced down the street. Example B: The boy with the blue shirt often sits in front of me on the bus.

Participial Phrase

A participial phrase consists of a verb ending in –ing (present participle) or a past tense verb as well as other modifiers. It acts as an adjective within a sentence and can be essential or nonessential. If it is a nonessential phrase within a sentence, it is set off with commas.

Example A: The boy sitting in the first row forgot his notebook today. (Essential – The phrase specifies which boy is being referred to.)

Example B: Sitting in the first row, Michael searched for his lost notebook. (Nonessential – Where Michael is sitting is irrelevant to what he is doing/the overall meaning of the sentence.)

Example C: Devastated that she couldn’t find her favorite shoes, Mira settled for a comfortable pair of flats. (Nonessential – Why Mira settled for the flats doesn’t matter for the overall message of the sentence.)

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, an object of that preposition, and often other modifiers/adjectives. It acts as an adjective or adverb within a sentence.

Example A: The pot on the stove was still hot. Example B: The ball rolled over the hill.

Absolute Phrase

An absolute phrase is a group of words containing a noun or pronoun and participle (and often other modifiers) that modifies the entire sentence. Very close to a clause, it can contain every element found in a sentence except a finite verb. Absolute phrases are considered nonessential elements in a sentence because they provide extra information that doesn’t change the overall meaning of the sentence, so they are set off with commas.

Example A: Her head held high, she entered the room with as much confidence as she could muster. (With the finite verb “was,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: Her head was held high.)

Example B: He shuffled across the room, his eyes scanning for anything unusual. (With the finite verb “were,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: His eyes were scanning for anything unusual.)

Phrases are bit tricky, but with some practice, mastering them can give you an edge on your writing and make it flourish.

The Grammar Grind: Clauses and Phrases – Part 1

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Though most people don’t think about them on an individual level, clauses and phrases join to form every sentence we write and read. While parts of speech are the building blocks of the English language, clauses and phrases work together to connect ideas and give them proper flow and readability. In short, their structure helps us make sense of those ideas. In fiction (and even nonfiction), knowing how to manipulate clauses and phrases are essential to good writing. Without them, sentence variation wouldn’t exist. So let’s start with the basics.

What Is a Clause?

Clauses are groups of related words that have a subject and a verb. Some clauses are dependent, and others are independent. Clauses also help determine when and where commas are needed.

Clause Types

Independent Clauses Independent clauses include a subject and a verb, and they express a complete thought. In other words, they can stand alone.

Example: The cat sat on the windowsill.

Dependent or Subordinating Clauses Dependent clauses also contain a subject and a verb—though they don’t always directly state both (see Example B)—but they do not express a complete thought and are reliant on independent clauses to support them. In other words, they cannot stand on their own and are not sentences.

Example A: When traveling to another country… Example B: …but didn’t show up until 9 p.m. (In the last example, the subject would be implied from the independent clause preceding it; however, since it is not directly stated in the second part, that part is considered a dependent clause, and NO COMMA is used before it.)

Dependent clauses are also the trickiest clauses to master, particularly when it comes to punctuation, because there are several different types.

Relative Clauses (Adjective Clauses) Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun and function as an adjective. They can be restrictive or nonrestrictive depending on the context.

Restrictive relative clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence and are NOT set off with commas. They can specify which item/person is being referred to out of several choices, or they can provide information that is crucial to the surrounding clauses.

Example A: The cashier who checked me out at the grocery store was very friendly. In the above example, the relative clause is considered restrictive because it specifies which of the many cashiers working there the sentence is referring to; therefore, no commas are used.

Example B: The television that he chose was one of the most highly rated ones of the year.

In Example B, the restrictive relative clause dictates which television the information following it is discussing. Another very important thing to note about this example is the use of the word that. The word which would actually be incorrect here; it is primarily used for setting off nonrestrictive relative clauses. Grammar Girl has some great tips on the topic.

Nonrestrictive relative clauses are not essential to the meaning of the sentence and could be left out without changing the overall meaning. This type of relative clause is ALWAYS set off with commas.

Example A: Jack, who is our new biology teacher, will be starting next week.

The relative clause in the above example actually tells us two things. First, it tells us that Jack is the new biology teacher, an added detail that is nice to know but isn’t crucial to the overall meaning of the sentence. However, it also implies that the narrator is referring to a specific Jack that the reader is already aware of, indicated by the surrounding commas. Without the commas, it would be assumed that there is more than one Jack and that it was necessary for the narrator to specify which one he was talking about.

Example B: Blueberries, which are a great source of Vitamin C, are one of my favorite fruits.

Example B includes a relative clause that provides us with extra information about the subject that it modifies, but the information does not restrict the subject in any way, so it is considered nonessential and should be set off with commas. Note the use of the word which here rather than that.

Noun Clauses Noun clauses function are a string of words that function as a noun in the sentence. However, they differ from a noun phrase in the fact that contain both a subject and a verb.

Example A: I don’t remember what I ate for dinner. Example B: The question is whether or not the rope will hold. Example C: The winner will be determined by whoever gets the most votes.

Important note about pronoun cases (who, whom, whoever, whomever): Which pronoun should be used is determined by the role it plays in its own clause, NOT by its relation to the rest of the sentence. Example C illustrates this idea.

Adverbial Clauses (most often referred to as subordinate clauses) Adverbial clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction and answer the question when, how, where, why, to what extent, or under what conditions something happens. They can be found anywhere in the sentence but are most commonly found at the beginning or end. Such clauses used at the beginning of a sentence are followed by a comma. Those found at the end are not, except in cases of extreme contrast.

Example A: While you were busy playing games, I completed my art project. Example B: You need to clean up your room before you can hang out with your friends. Example C: We just purchased a new television, though our budget is tight. (A comma is used in the last example because of a contrasting situation.)

Because is probably the most difficult subordinating conjunction to deal with regarding comma usage. While a comma is always used after it when it starts a clause at the beginning of a sentence, whether or not a comma is required before it at the end of a sentence depends solely on the overall meaning of the sentence. A comma is typically only used for clarification.

Example A: Because we missed the bus, our mom drove us to school. Example B: We went for a walk because it was such a nice day. Example C: I didn’t work today, because I was sick. (The comma in the last example is needed for clarification. Without it, it implies that there might be an alternative meaning that doesn’t really make much sense: that the narrator did work today, not because he was sick, but for some other reason that wasn’t expressed. Many times, the comma before “because” will be required when the first half of the sentence is negated, as was the case in Example C.)

Side note: Subordinating conjunctions are not the same as conjunctive adverbs. So watch out for those. You can learn about them in my previous posts about parts of speech and semicolons.

The Grammar Grind: Commas

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

It's easy to see how commas are probably the most misused punctuation mark. Not only are they tricky to use, but there are so many rules revolving around them, it's difficult to keep them straight. Commas are mainly used to join two clauses together to form a sentence, but they are also used with appositives and clauses; definitive words and titles; and times, places, and ideas. So how do you keep all this information straight? I recommend splitting the rules into categories; it's much easier to memorize a few categories than it is to remember all the rules individually. I also recommend studying the rules on a regular basis. I know the last thing most people want to do is to spend their free time schooling themselves again, especially about something as tedious as grammar. But if you don't practice, you'll never get any better.

Appositives and Clauses

1. Use a comma to set off nonessential information within a sentence. This type of appositive would be nonrestrictive.

Example: Jamie, my lab partner, got high marks in chemistry last year.

If the information is extra but necessary to the meaning of the sentence, the appositive is considered restrictive; therefore, no commas are used.

Example A: Famous artist Vincent Van Gogh was of Dutch descent.

Example B: Johnny brought his dog Spot to the park.

Why are these sentences restrictive? Example A mentions a specific famous artist. Without the name of that artist, the reader wouldn't know who was of Dutch descent. Example B assumes that Johnny has more than one dog. Therefore, clarification is needed to name which dog Johnny brought to the park with him. The same would be true if the subject had more than one sister or brother, car, etc.

2. Use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. Note that the use of a conjunction alone does not make both parts independent. If a period can replace the conjunction and both parts of the sentence can stand alone, then both clauses are independent. If the second part cannot stand alone, it is a dependent clause, so no comma is needed.

Example A: Johnny went left, and I went right. Example B: Johnny went left but didn't bother to say goodbye.

Check out the following site for a list of coordinating conjunctions and their uses:

3. Use a comma after an introductory/subordinating word or phrase, otherwise known as a dependent clause, at the beginning of a sentence. The only exception to this rule is if the phrase is an adverbial phrase immediately followed by the verb it modifies.

Example A: After a long walk in the park, Walter was able to calm down.

Example B: Yes, I told him we would meet later. Example C: Before him stood a grand entrance. (The adverbial phrase "before him" modifies "stood.")

Check out this site for a list of subordinating conjunctions:

Definitive Words and Titles

4. Use commas to set off names and titles that directly address someone, as well as degrees following names.

Example A: My wife, Tina, makes delicious chocolate chip cookies.

Example B: Miss, would you like a hand?

Example C: Doctor Colby Smith, M.D., has received many awards for his medical expertise.

5. Use a comma around interrupter words and phrases (considered a type of non-restrictive appositive) that appear in the middle of a sentence. Prepositional phrases can also sometimes be interrupters.

Example A: This afternoon, in fact, we had gorgeous weather.

Example B: Alex, however, did not want to participate.

Example C: I found out, to my horror, that I was failing English.

However, when interrupter words and phrases are placed in the middle of two independent clauses, a conjunction, period, or semicolon should be used.

Example A: We were running low on food, but the store was nearby.

Example B: We were running low on food. However, the store was nearby.

Example C: We were running low on food; however, the store was nearby.

In these examples, using a comma alone would result in a common error called a comma splice. A comma splice occurs when two independent thoughts are joined together by a comma alone, rather than using a conjunction, period, or semicolon. This can occur with or without an interrupter word. Note that when an interrupter word is used in this kind of a situation, a comma must follow it.

6. Use a comma between coordinate adjectives. To decide if the adjectives are coordinate, ask yourself the following two questions:

  • Does the word "and" make sense between them?
  • Does the sentence make sense if the two adjectives are written in reverse order?

If the answer is yes to both of these questions, the adjectives are coordinate, and a comma should be used. If not, the adjectives are considered non-coordinate, and the comma is omitted.

Example A: Before her stood a tall, white fence.

Example B: Tom found fresh green grass on the other side of the hill.

7. Use a comma to separate words or short phrases that are part of a list. Use a semicolon to separate longer phrases used as list items.

Example A: I went to the store and bought milk, eggs, bread, and butter.

Example B: I still need to brush my teeth, comb my hair, and get dressed.

Example C: To learn how to use punctuation effectively, one must study it frequently and take note of any changes to the rules; practice it in both daily writing and in professional settings; and be willing to change their habits if they are using punctuation incorrectly.

With simple lists, bear in mind that U.K. rules and U.S. rules differ. In the U.K., there is no comma before the "and" (known as the Oxford comma); in the U.S., there is. You may see the comma omitted in the U.S. for news articles and other such areas of journalism, but in fiction writing and most of nonfiction writing, the comma still stands.

Times, Places, and Ideas

8. Use a comma between the day of the month and the year. If either the day of the month or the year is omitted, do not use a comma.

Example A: I was born on January 12, 1927.

Example B: I was born in January 1927.

Example C: I was born on January 12.

9. Use a comma to separate city and state.

Example: She was born in Lexington, Kentucky.

10. Use a comma to set off a direct quote. When splitting a sentence that contains a direct quote, place a comma before both halves of the quote.

Example A: John said, "It's your turn to wash the dishes."

Example B: "How is it my turn," Mary complained, "when I did them last night?"

11. Use a comma to separate a statement from a question when they are both part of the same sentence.

Example: I can go with my friends, can't I?

12. Use a comma to separate contrasting parts of a sentence.

Example: I prefer to have my beverages shaken, not stirred.


Though seldom needed, commas can sometimes be used for clarification. If you are a native speaker of English, recognizing the need for such a comma will come a bit more easily. Even so, developing the necessary intuition to recognize these situations can be difficult. The following is an example of how to deal with such a sentence.

Unclear: The room was full of crying babies and mothers. (Were the mothers crying too?)

Better: The room was full of crying babies, and mothers. (Clearer, but let's make it even better.)

Best: The room was full of mothers and crying babies.

As you can see from the examples above, the best option is to reword the sentence entirely.

Quick Overview of Commas

  1. Commas are used to set off nonessential information.
  2. Use commas to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.
  3. Use commas after introductory clauses, except in the case of adverbial phrases immediately followed by the verb they modify.
  4. Use commas to set off names, titles, and degrees.
  5. Use a comma between coordinate adjectives.
  6. Use a comma to separate day of the month and year.
  7. Use a comma to separate city and state.
  8. Use commas to set off direct quotes.
  9. Use a comma to separate a statement from a question and between contrasting parts of a sentence.
  10. Use commas sparingly for clarification.