Tag Archives: non-essential information

Four Comma Rules

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Some grammar and punctuation books may list 50 comma rules. Here are the four comma rules that will serve you in just about any situation.

1. A comma separates items in a series of three or more:

I went to the store and bought anchovies, feta cheese(,) and cereal.

2. A comma separates independent clauses (complete sentences) when they are joined by a conjunction such as and, but, or, nor, for or yet:

I wanted to go to the party, but I wasn’t invited.

3. A comma is used after an introductory dependent clause such as a prepositional phrase:

During our meeting yesterday, John left the room to meet with a client.

4. A comma sets off any non-essential information:

Our annual retreat, held every January, will be in Aspen this year.

EXERCISE:
Insert commas where necessary. Which comma rule applies?

1. Her internship is ending so she’s starting grad school in August.

2. Running through the hall he tripped over a plant stand.

3. The new boss in a departure from tradition gave all employees his home phone number.

4. She is active in the Charity Mentoring and Birthday Committees.

5. Bill Gates one of the world’s richest people is very charitable.

6. I would organize the meeting but I am too busy to take on another obligation.

7. Where are you going for your vacation Carlos?

8. Brian is taking the Bar Exam next week but he hasn’t had a job offer yet.

9. California’s Bar Exam perhaps the most difficult in the nation has a pass rate of only 30%.

10. His evaluations which are among the best in his department still did not result in a promotion or a raise.

Copyright  2007 Judith R. Birnberg/Write It Right All rights reserved.

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That vs. Which

Many people think “that” and “which” are interchangeable, but it’s not the case.

One comma rule is that non-essential information is set off by commas:

1.     It rained on Sunday, which made skipping the picnic an easy decision.

2.     Adam is good at oil painting, which he practices daily.

3.     She loves attending NASCAR races, which she really can’t afford to do very often.

In all of those sentences, the main information comes before the commas.  You could leave the information after the commas out and your readers would still understand what you have written, even though they might find the information after the commas helpful or interesting.  But it is not essential information (essential to the understanding of the sentence).

Use a comma and “which” to set off non-essential information.

Now let’s look at “that”:

1.     It’s a lemon tree that is very close to her kitchen.

2.     He drives a car that is 14 years old.

3.     They live in the house that his grandfather built in 1920.

In these sentences the information beginning with “that” is essential.  If I just wrote the words before “that,” you’d ask, “What lemon tree?”  “What car?”  “What house?”

Use no comma and “that” to introduce essential information.

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