English - Commas

Example

Look at the following sentence and insert commas at the appropriate points. - The student who had been very diligent was able to score very highly in the test.

Commas, as we are always told, are used to separate items in lists. They are also used to show the natural pauses in sentences and can be used to isolate extra information. Although there are a lot of rules as to where a comma is or is not appropriate, the real problem is that there is flexibility. It is often down to a teacher to say 'does it feel like there should be a comma there?' rather than 'there must be a comma there'!

Let's look at the question and see which rules are being used. There are no lists so no need to separate anything there. There are no adjectives next to each other (e.g. tall, slim man) and no need to put commas in for that reason. However, there are some words which are used to add information to the sentence.

The main clause (the part of the sentence with the subject and verb in it) is 'The student was able to score very highly in the test'. The extra information, which has been added to provide detail, is 'who had been very diligent'. There are three different ways to show this information in a sentence. You can use brackets, dashes or commas. The commonest method is to use commas and if you physically mark it out with your hands in the shape of commas as you say it, your child should find it quite straightforward.

The student, who had been very diligent, was able to score very highly in the test.


Example 2

Look at the following sentence and put commas in where they should be.

Although there were two packets in the cupboard neither was the one she was looking for.

As per the previous comma question, we need to check the commonest reasons for commas to be put in. There are no lists and there is no 'extra information' inserted in the sentence but there is a need for a comma. The technical reason is that the sentence starts with a subordinate clause.

While a main clause contains the subject and verb and could stand as a sentence on its own, the subordinate clause can NOT stand on its own. It still has a verb in and often a subject (although this isn't always necessary as the subject can be in the main clause alone).

The rules are relatively straightforward - if the sentence starts with a subordinate clause and is followed by a main clause, you put a comma in between. There is no need for a comma after a main clause which is followed by a subordinate clause, but it sometimes works to have one in should the sentence be a bit long or awkward, such as this one.

In practice, these are correctly punctuated. The main clause is underlined in each case.

The girl was hungry despite the fact that she had eaten earlier.

Despite the fact that she had eaten earlier, the girl was hungry

Therefore to answer our question, which starts with a subordinate clause, we must say:

Although there were two packets in the cupboard, neither was the one she was looking for.


Example 3

Insert the commas in the following sentence where they should be.

When I walked into the old dark house I felt cold and afraid.

The sentence clearly contains quite a few adjectives and we should be separating them by using commas. 'Old, dark' is correct use of commas but the word 'and' separates 'cold' and 'afraid' so there is no need for a comma there. However, that is not the only comma that is missing. As in example 2, the sentence begins with a subordinate clause.

When I walked into the old dark house I felt cold and afraid.

This means the comma should come between the subordinate clause and the main clause, making the whole sentence read as follows:

When I walked into the old, dark house, I felt cold and afraid.

And finally, let's have a go at the old favourite:

Insert the commas in the following sentence where they should be.

I took a bag of sweets three books a cup and a green ball.

Of course, this is the type of question we all learned to punctuate even if we were taught in the era of grammar-free English lessons. The items are all to be separated with commas but we don't put a comma before 'and'. Therefore the correct version is:

I took a bag of sweets, three books, a cup and a green ball.

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