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Fiction Style Guide: Commas

The more you get right in your manuscript before submitting to editors, the less work they'll have to do on mechanical issues—and the more time they can spend on making your writing shine. Plus, learning the conventions of fiction style* can save you money.

*This is Articulate Editing house style, which is based on generally accepted fiction conventions (in the US) and a pinch of personal opinion. Most of what is written here will apply across the board. If a guideline has wiggle room, I'll let you know. And if you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their specifications, as their house style may differ slightly. (This style guide also applies to creative nonfiction.)

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Commas are the trickiest punctuation mark. A few rules are firm, but many can be bent—especially in creative writing—in service to the writer's intent and ear. While it's an oversimplification to "put a comma wherever you hear a pause," listening to the rhythm of your prose is important. Too many commas, even grammatically correct ones, can make your writing choppy, and too few can hinder clarity.

When it comes to punctuation, there’s a difference between formal prose and creative writing. Readers rely on formal prose for information; the purpose of every comma and dash should be clear and unambiguous. In creative writing, emotions matter.
In other words, how does that comma make you feel? —Russell Harper, CMOS Shop Talk, Fiction+

People (and narrators) don't always speak in formal, grammatically correct sentences. So please, don't correct the voice out of your novel—and don't allow your editor to either! And if you've put a lot of thought into your comma usage, make sure you communicate your preferences. Editors will pay attention to your style and edit accordingly, but might end up inadvertently changing some of your deliberate comma choices if you don't give them a heads-up.

Serial commas

Most comma rules are agreed upon across styles, but the serial comma is the exception. Chicago Style (and most other US style guides for book publishing) favor the serial comma. AP Style does not use the serial comma unless it's needed to prevent misreading, which makes sense since space is tight in newspapers and every little bit counts. I occasionally notice AP Style commas in fiction books (this is standard in the UK), but don't recommend this style choice. However, what matters most is being consistent with whatever you choose.

Items in a series of three or more are usually separated by commas. The commas stand in for "and." When you don't use any "ands," it's called asyndeton.

I loved him madly, truly, deeply.

When you use lots of "ands," it's called polysyndeton. You can omit the commas or have "ands" and commas. Either is fine, but the rhythm and effect will be different.

I want ice cream and pizza and candy and presents and ...

But most of the time you'll use commas between the first items, and "and" before the last item in the series. The red comma before the "and" is the serial comma (aka the Oxford comma).

I want ice cream, pizza, candy, and presents.

There is no comma after the final item in the series unless the syntax of the sentence requires it.

I want ice cream, pizza, candy, and presents on my birthday.
I want ice cream, pizza, candy, and presents, and don't forget the piñata!

Whether you're using the serial comma or not, add or omit the commas as needed to prevent ambiguity. Or even better, recast.

I ate with my mom, Hillary Clinton, and my uncle George. X (unless your name is Chelsea Clinton)

I ate with my mom, Hillary Clinton and my uncle George. (better without the serial comma)

I ate with my mom, my uncle George, and Hillary Clinton. (even better recast)

No serial comma is added with ampersands.

The law firm of Smith, Thompson & Mackenzie.

Commas and independent clauses

An independent clause contains a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a complete thought.

A comma isn't enough on it's own to join two independent clauses (this is called a comma splice) unless the clauses are short, repetitive, and closely related.

Comma splices are considered an error in formal writing, but are sometimes acceptable in fiction (for artistic reasons), and more acceptable in dialogue, where they can be useful to show certain patterns of speech. (There's a great article at CMOS Shop Talk/Fiction+ on Comma Splices and Run-On Sentences.)

The boy jumped the fence, he ran off as soon as he landed. X

But ...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."
Easy come, easy go.

A coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so) is needed in addition to the comma to prevent a comma splice.

But with short, closely related clauses, the comma can be omitted and the and used alone. In fiction, there's even more leeway with omitting the comma if it helps create the desired rhythm and emphasis.

The boy jumped the fence, and he ran off as soon as he landed.
The boy jumped the fence, but he tripped and fell on the other side.

But ...

He comes and he goes.

When you have three short independent clauses that share a subject, it's okay to connect them with commas. This is not considered a comma splice. (Two, bad. Three, good.😉)

I came over, I ate a snack. X
I came, I saw, I conquered.

Commas and dependent clauses

A dependent clause contains a subject and a verb, but can't stand alone as a complete thought. Usually because it begins with a subordinating conjunction such as if, when, until, before, after, although, etc.

Until we finish our chores to our mother's satisfaction ...
Before the rains came ...

When a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, it's generally followed by a comma.

Until we finish our chores to our mother's satisfaction, we can't watch TV.
Before the rains came, the soil was cracked and dry.

But ...

If the sentence is short and clear, you can choose to omit the comma.

Until we finish we can't watch.

When a dependent clause follows the main, independent clause, a comma usually isn't needed.

We went sailing because we had nothing better to do.
We went, before you came. X

But ...

If the dependent clause feels like an afterthought or doesn't feel essential to the meaning of the sentence, the pause a comma creates may be just the ticket.

We did go sailing, although we weren't all that into the idea.

But ... a comma may not give enough separation in this case.

We did go sailing—although we weren't all that into the idea.

Be careful with "because." If it follows a negative statement, a comma may be needed for clarity.

I didn't win the contest because of my luck. X (Did I not win, due to my bad luck? Or did I win for a reason other than luck?)

I didn't win the contest, because of my luck.

I didn't win the contest because of my luck, but because I cheated.

Commas after coordinating conjunctions and before parenthetical phrases

Traditionally, a comma would go before and after a coordinating conjunction that precedes a parenthetical phrase and an independent clause.

While the following example is not wrong, the commas create a choppy rhythm.

Scarlett scanned the room, and, out of nowhere, the perpetrator appeared.

It is now considered perfectly acceptable, perhaps even preferable, to leave out the second comma.

Scarlett scanned the room, and out of nowhere, the perpetrator appeared.

But ...

If the coordinating conjunction isn't separating two independent clauses, the comma goes after the coordinating conjunction.

Scarlett scanned the room and, briefly, wondered where the perpetrator had gone.

Commas with compound predicates

In general, commas shouldn't separate a subject from its verb. When the subject is a long phrase, it's easier to make this mistake.

Running all over the place trying to find ingredients, isn't my idea of a good time. X

The exception is for a pair of commas surrounding a parenthetical element.

Running, my favorite sport, has lots of health benefits.

This is still true with compound predicates (when the noun has more than one verb).

Sally took a excessively long shower and threw her clothes on over a still-wet body to make up the time. (no comma before "and")

But ...

In fiction, if a pause is desired before a subsequent verb for emphasis, inflection, or rhythm, this rule can be broken.

Sally took a super long shower, and left a wad of hair in the drain.

Though there are other, often better, ways to get the needed emphasis.

Sally took a super long shower—and left a wad of hair in the drain!
Sally took a super long shower and left a wad of hair in the drain.

Commas with compound subjects and objects

Whenever two units (except for clauses) are connected by a conjunction and branch off the same stem, don't use a comma to separate them.

Don't separate two subjects that share a verb with a comma. (Three or more will take commas).

The grand-looking main house and the shabby little guest house in the back were both covered in gray shingles.

But ... you could separate out the second subject with two commas to change the emphasis.

The grand-looking main house, and the shabby little guest house in the back, were both covered in gray shingles.

Don't separate two objects of a single verb with a comma.

She spoke about the difficulties of starting a new business and the necessity of forging ahead anyway.

But ... this rule can be broken in creative writing if separation and emphasis is desired for artistic reasons (though using an em dash is often a better choice).

She spoke about the difficulties of starting a new business, and the necessity of forging ahead anyway.

She spoke about the difficulties of starting a new business—and the necessity of forging ahead anyway

It can also be broken if adding a comma prevents misreading.

He chased the man who took his car, and yelled bloody murder. (Comma needed to show that it's the first man who yelled, not the thief.)

Introductory words and phrases

Introductory phrases are often followed by a comma, but don't always have to be.

It depends on the type and length of the phrase, its relationship to the rest of the sentence, whether leaving out the comma causes a misreading, and author preference for close (lots of commas) or open (spare use of commas) punctuation.

Introductory prepositional phrases usually require commas if they're long, but if they're short, adding commas is up the writer.

On Sunday, we went to church.
On Sunday we went to church.
On the last Sunday of that blistering hot summer, we went to church.

Introductory participles and participial phrases usually need commas.

Trotting past the bystanders, the magnificent stallion tossed his mane.
Aggravated, she stuck out her tongue.

Incidentally, participles and participial phrases usually need commas when they follow the noun they modify as well (unless they directly follow, see second example below).

The magnificent stallion tossed his mane, snorting as he did so.
I saw a magnificent stallion snorting and tossing his mane.

Introductory participial phrases that modify the subject by way of a linking verb don't take commas.

Trotting by was the magnificent stallion of legend.

Introductory sentence adverbs/adverbial phrases are usually followed by a comma.

But if the introductory adverb modifies the verb instead of the whole sentence, no comma is needed. Your ears will guide you here. If you read the sentence with a pause after the introductory adverb, a comma is needed. For more on sentence adverbs, see my blog article "Is 'of course' always followed by a comma? Of course not!"

Actually, the full moon was last night.
Recently I ran a marathon.
Of course I want to go!
Of course, we do need to consider both sides before making a decision.

Introductory adverbial phrases that begin an inverted sentence don't take commas.

Alongside the train rode the outlaws. (inverted)
The outlaws rode alongside the train. (natural)

If the Introductory element is a dependent clause, it should usually be followed by a comma. Exceptions can sometimes be made for short clauses, and to reduce the number of commas in a compound-complex sentence with multiple clauses.

Before the rains came, the soil was cracked and dry.

Commas with parenthetical elements

Parenthetical elements can be lifted out of the sentence without significantly altering its meaning, so they're considered nonessential or nonrestrictive. As comma usage with parenthetical elements affects clarity and readability, there's very little room for creative license.

When you use a comma to set off a parenthetical (nonessential) element, if the sentence continues after the parenthetical element, you must use a second comma to enclose the element.

George, the guy who fixed my car, is a teddy bear.

This holds true for parentheses and dashes as well. Also, the punctuation must match on either side of the parenthetical element—you can't have a comma on one side and a dash on the other.

George—you remember him, the guy who fixed my car?—is a teddy bear.

Use commas to set off nonrestrictive appositives.

My sister, Rose, is a pain in the butt. (I have only one sister, and I just happen to be mentioning her name as added information.)

My sister Rose is a pain in the butt. (I have more than one sister, so the name is needed to clarify which sister I'm talking about.)

But ... when it comes to spouses, more and more experts think the comma isn't needed, since monogamy is the default.

I dedicate this book to my wife Gladys. (Would anyone really assume this writer is a polygamist?)

So with spouses, if the commas are unobtrusive, best leave them in since they're strictly correct. But if they make the sentence choppy and comma heavy, feel free to leave them out.

Use commas to set off nonrestrictive relative clauses. Relative clauses begin with relative pronouns (that, which, who, what, whose, and sometimes when and where). If the relative clause isn't essential to limit/restrict the meaning of the noun it modifies, it is set off by commas.

Susie, who wrote the best paper, will win the competition.
Susie will win the competition. (Without the clause, it's still clear who won the competition.)

If the relative clause is essential to restrict the meaning of the noun it modifies, it does not take commas.

The girl who wrote the best paper will win the competition. (The speaker doesn't yet know who will win, but knows it will be whichever girl wrote the best paper.)

The girl, who wrote the best paper, will win the competition. (The speaker is referring to a particular girl who he believes wrote the best paper.)

In US English, "that" is used for restrictive relative clauses, and "which" is used for nonrestrictive relative clauses. So if the information feels parenthetical and can be lifted out of the sentence without loss of meaning, use "which."

Horses, which eat grass, enjoy being turned out in a pasture. (All horses eat grass. So "which eat grass" is not needed to define which horses are being discussed.)

Horses that are turned out in a pasture enjoy eating the grass. (Only those horses that have the luxury of getting turned out in a pasture get to enjoy eating grass.)

But ...

In creative writing and informal writing, this isn't a hard and fast rule. Sometimes "which" can be used in place of "that" for restrictive clauses.

Commas with contrasting statements

Use commas with "not" phrases that are used for clarification.

It was Mary, not Julie, who spread the nasty rumor.

Commas are usually not necessary between "not only" and "but also."

I not only did all the required reading but also wrote an extra-credit essay.

But ...

If the "not only ... but also" construction joins two independent clauses, then use a comma. (Unless the clauses are short and closely related).

Not only did she do all the required reading, but she also wrote an extra-credit essay.

A comma or dash can precede the "not" phrase when needed for clarity or emphasis.

I tend to open up to people only after knowing them for years, not only to protect myself but also to protect the innocent.

Use commas with "the more ... the more" and "the more ... the less" statements.

The more I try, the worse I do.
The more he demonstrated his love for her, the more she disliked him.

Commas with adjectives

When to put a comma between two or more adjectives that precede the noun they modify can throw people off, but if you're fluent in English, you can usually trust your instincts in this area.

Don't put a comma between a noun and the adjective directly preceding it.

She was a stunning, intelligent, woman. X

If the adjectives are coordinate, commas are needed. Coordinate adjectives carry equal weight and modify the noun separately. To test for co-ordinate adjectives, put and between them and see if they still make sense, then reverse the order and see if they still make sense (and sound right). If they pass both tests, they're coordinate adjectives and need commas.

She was a stunning, intelligent woman.
She was a stunning and intelligent woman.
She was an intelligent, stunning woman.

If the adjectives are cumulative, no commas are needed. Cumulative adjectives build on one another to collectively modify the noun. There's a natural order to the categories of cumulative adjectives: quantity, opinion, size, age, shape, color, ethnicity/religion/origin, material, purpose or an adjective that's part of a compound name (paint brush, oak tree).

I bought two, luxurious, red, wool sweaters. X
I bought two and luxurious and red and wool sweaters. X
I bought wool, red, luxurious, two sweaters. X
I bought two luxurious red wool sweaters.

The previous sentence fails the tests for coordinate adjectives, so no commas needed.

Commas with individual words

Too, also, and either: commas are optional whether they come at the end of a sentence or in the middle, unless needed for clarity. For more on this, check out this article at CMOS Shop Talk.

However, indeed, and therefore: these words are usually set off with commas, whether at the beginning, middle, or end if the sentence. However, it's okay indeed to leave out the commas when it suits the rhythm and meaning of the sentence. Therefore, however you decide to punctuate is probably fine, as long as you pay attention to rhythm.

Namely, that is, for example: commas normally follow these words/phrases, and those with similar meanings.

Yes and no: commas to set off are optional, depending on rhythm desired by author.

"No I don't."
"Yes, you do."

And and but: generally, don't set off conjunctions when they begin a sentence. Exceptions can be made for rhythm and emphasis, especially in dialogue.

Oh, well, ah, etc.: Often set off with commas, but may be left out if a different rhythm or emphasis is desired.

Oh, I hadn't thought of that.
Oh no! (The comma is left out with this common expression of dismay.)
Oh boy. What've you gone and done now?
Well, that's just ridiculous, isn't it?

Don't set off Jr., Sr., II, III, Ltd., or Inc. with commas.

But ...

Do set off Academic credentials.

"My literature professor is John Garson, PhD."

Commas with dialogue

Use commas to set off dialogue from dialogue tags. For more on punctuating dialogue, see my style guide on dialogue.

"I'm serious," she said.
And he shouted, "I don't believe you!"

But ...

Don't set off quotations that blend into the sentence (function as a part of speech) with commas.

I shouted at them to "Leave me alone!" and stormed out of the room.

Commas with vocatives and greetings

Set off vocatives (nouns used in direct address) with commas.

"Are you sure about that, Mother?"
"Listen, you little brat, you'll do what I say or else!"

"Dear John" isn't a vocative, but other greetings require commas.

It's acceptable to ignore this rule in emails and casual correspondence.

Hi, Mary.
Dear John, I'm breaking up with you.

But ...

Hi Mary, I hope this email finds you well.

Commas with repeated words

If recasting isn't an option, repeated words with distinct functions can be separated with a comma for clarity.

Focusing on what is, is best.
It was the poles crossing this way and that, that tripped me up.

Commas with dates and addresses

When writing the full date, separate the day and year with a comma.

September 23, 1988

When writing the full date in a sentence, surround the year with commas.

On September 23, 1988, a precious girl was born.

But ...

If the date is used as an adjective, omit the second comma.

The September 23, 1988 report was leaked to the press.

When writing just the month and year, don't separate them with a comma.

September 1988

A date that follows a day of the week should be set off with commas.

Friday, September 23, was a day unlike any other.

Use a comma between street and city with addresses, and a comma between city and state. Do not put a comma between city and zip code.

122 West Georgian Street, Anytown, ME 04439

When using the city and state alone, set off the state with commas.

In Boston, Massachusetts, there are many sightseeing opportunities.

Commas with numbers

Place a comma before every third number from the left of the decimal point.

1,000 (one thousand)
2,000,000 (two million)
$34,562.78 (thirty-four thousand, five-hundred sixty-two dollars and seventy-eight cents)

Commas with other punctuation

Commas can follow exclamation points and question marks that are part of a title.

Oklahoma!, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Oliver! are all titles that end in punctuation marks.

Commas shouldn't precede the opening or closing parenthesis, but instead follow, just outside the closing parenthesis.

I loved him (of course I did!), but he had no idea.

Commas are always inside quotation marks in US English, whether single or double.

"The way you use the word 'ironic,' my dear, is quite frankly ... ironic," she said.

But ...

Commas follow an apostrophe that replaces the final letter of a word.

"I wish I were goin', but I ain't."

A comma can follow a period only when the period is part of an abbreviation.

I woke up at 4 a.m., then rolled over and went back to sleep.

Avoid commas with ellipses/suspension points. (For more, see my style guide on punctuation.)


1 Comment

Ana Ioan
Ana Ioan
May 19, 2023

Wow, a comprehensive guide, so useful! Congrats on your expertise and thank you for sharing.

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