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Herzing University

Kate Oscarson

Grammar Lessons: Where to use a comma

There are lots of rules that dictate when to use a comma, but the two most fundamental rules are related to independent and dependent clauses.

Where do you use a comma?

It seems like a weird question to ask, right? Don’t commas just go where you pause in the sentence? Nope. But if you thought that, you’re not alone!

There are a lot of rules that dictate where and when to use a comma, but the two most fundamental rules are related to independent and dependent clauses. Before you can begin to understand where to use a comma, you first need to know the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

What are independent and dependent clauses?

An independent clause is a part of a sentence that contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. It is, in effect, a complete sentence.

Example: Luke thought he was an orphan.

  • Who is our subject? Luke
  • What did our subject do? Thought
  • What did he think about? That he was an orphan (this is the object)

You don’t need an object to have an independent clause or a complete sentence. “Luke thought” is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but it doesn’t tell the reader very much.

A dependent clause contains a subject and a verb, but does not express a complete thought. Dependent clauses are not complete sentences, and therefore cannot stand alone.

Example: Because he thought he was an orphan.

Even though we have all the components of a sentence here, we don’t have a complete sentence or an independent clause. This is because the statement doesn’t express a complete thought. The “because” at the beginning is throwing everything off!

“Because” is called a “dependent marker.” These words demand more information and tell the reader that there is more to this sentence. When you add “because” to the beginning of a sentence, you automatically have a dependent clause.

Other dependent markers include after, although, before, even if, in order to, since, unless, until, when, whenever and while.

Examples:

  • Independent clause: Luke went on a journey.
  • Dependent clause: When Luke went on a journey, …
  • Independent clause: Luke met Ben.
  • Dependent Clause: After Luke met Ben, …
  • Independent clause: Ben wasn’t fully honest with Luke.
  • Dependent clause: Since Ben wasn’t fully honest with Luke, …

Now that you understand the difference between independent and dependent clauses, you’re ready to learn two basic comma rules:

1. You use a comma when you have two independent clauses separated by a conjunction:

Example: Luke thought he was an orphan, but he was wrong. A conjunction is a word that connects two clauses. Some popular conjunctions include and, but, or, nor, so, yet, etc. When you use a conjunction to connect two independent clauses, you always put a comma before the conjunction.

2. You also use a comma when you have a dependent clause that comes before an independent clause in a sentence:

Example: Because he thought he was an orphan, Luke was surprised to meet his father and twin sister.

These are only two of many reasons why you would use a comma in a sentence.


Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography and degree field, affect career outcomes. Herzing does not guarantee a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salary.

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