Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Quick Tip: Commas

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Aug• 02•14

comma butterfly



I see this mistake often in manuscripts so just wanted to pass along this reminder about using commas to separate adjectives and after independent clauses.

From the Purdue OWL:
“Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.

The student explained her question, yet the instructor still didn’t seem to understand.

Yesterday was her brother’s birthday, so she took him out to dinner.”

Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal (“co”-ordinate) status in describing the noun; neither adjective is subordinate to the other. You can decide if two adjectives in a row are coordinate by asking the following questions:

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

If you answer yes to these questions, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. Here are some examples of coordinate and non-coordinate adjectives:

He was a difficult, stubborn child. (coordinate)

They lived in a white frame house. (non-coordinate)
She often wore a gray wool shawl. (non-coordinate)
Your cousin has an easy, happy smile. (coordinate)

The 1) relentless, 2) powerful 3) summer sun beat down on them. (1-2 are coordinate; 2-3 are non-coordinate.)

The 1) relentless, 2) powerful, 3) oppressive sun beat down on them. (Both 1-2 and 2-3 are coordinate.)

Here is the link to more punctuation guides.

(For those of you who are not entomologists, that is a comma butterfly above.)

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  1. Michele Field says:

    Very nice looking site!

  2. Superb simplification of the use of commas. There are certain times when a writer must be correct, yet other times when I think we can play with commas. I’m an open-comma user, as compared with closed commas. In my fiction I do play with commas as a way to express pace and flow: but on the whole I think I have a good feel for the art of the comma.
    Here you have pinned it down beautifully.
    Also, as an aside, I love the humour you inject into your book, ‘Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us’.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks so much for reading my book. It was snarky, but I thought humor was the way to go. The comma rules here are actually from a Purdue site–I don’t want to take credit. Also, there are different rules for comma use depending on whether you’re writing AP (Associated Press) style or for other formats. Cheers and thanks for stopping by. Jessica

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