3 Rules on Using Commas

The Comma, a few simple guidelines on using commas

There are those of you who prefer to let editors or proofreaders worry about commas, but if you’re hiring a freelance editor or proofreader, learning some punctuation basics will save you money because he/she will spend less time fixing your manuscript.

I’ll be the first to say the rules governing the English language are confusing. I’ve often wondered why there seems to be an exception to every rule—sometimes 2 or 3.

I reference my Chicago Manual of Style regularly. I also spend time in my Grammar Desk Reference, learning the whys and wherefores of grammar so I can correctly punctuate a sentence.

Today, I’d like to give some guidelines for commas I see most misused. Don’t worry, I’ll make it easy by avoiding all the impossible-to-remember grammatical terms.

Comma or no comma?

Should I write…

Her ex-husband Bert lives in Florida.
Her ex-husband, Bert, lives in Florida.

The sentence without the commas tells us this woman has more than one ex-husband. Bert is essential to the sentence so we know which one is being discussed.

If indeed, the woman in your story only has one ex-hubby, then you need to include the commas. The name Bert isn’t essential for us to know who the ex is, but rather offers us additional info about the one and only ex-husband.

Here are two more examples:

My twin sister, Dot, lives in Kansas.

The name Dot is not essential to the sentence—I can have only one twin.

My brother Mark lives in the land of fruits and nuts.

Mark is essential to the sentence because I have more than one brother.

What I do is ask whether that extra bit of info is essential for the reader to know exactly who I’m talking about.


The word then, when used at the beginning of a sentence, is rarely set off with a comma (did I mention there are always exceptions?).

Incorrect: Then, I sat down with a thud.

Correct: Then I sat down with a thud.

And, but, yet, or, nor, for

These words are most often used as conjunctions—sorry, can’t avoid the grammatical term on this one.

Sally cried all night, and Max laughed for having scared her.

When you use and, but, yet, or, nor, or for at the beginning of a sentence, do not use a comma.

Sally cried all night. And Max laughed for having scared her.

By the way, it’s perfectly alright to begin a sentence with these words.

When I’m in a hurry and don’t want to dig through my grammar reference or style manual, I visit Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, over at QuickandDirtyTips.

Do you have a question about commas? Put it in the comment box below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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  1. Deb, as you know, I LOVE commas! 😉

  2. Edward Arrington says:

    I have done some freelance proofreading. It is not always easy to know when proofing someone else’s work if a word or phrase is essential. What would you do in that case?

  3. These are basic rules that need to be reviewed. I see them ignored often!

    • These are the 3 comma errors I see most often in the manuscripts I work with, which is why I thought it would be good to address it here. Many people just don’t know the correct usage. I hope this helps them make sense of it.

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