Where Do I Use Commas?

Are you a comma-kaze? Do you use commas like confetti? Don’t use a comma everywhere you would pause when speaking. Check out the rules.

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
Episode #356

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Appositives

Here’s an easy example to help you remember the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives. If I have one sister, and I write “My sister, Meg, is coming to visit,” I use commas to set off my sister’s name because she’s the only one I have—it’s nonrestrictive, it doesn’t change the meaning. It’s a direct renaming of my sister.

But if I have two sisters, then I would have to leave out the commas and write, “My sister Meg is coming to visit.” “Meg” is still an appositive—it’s naming my sister—but it’s a restrictive appositive because it’s changing the meaning, it’s telling you which of my two sisters is coming.

Appositives in Richer Sentences

Many of the examples you’ll find of appositives in grammar books use names like this as examples because it’s an easy, clear way of showing the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives, but now you can see how they work more broadly by considering the Garmin ad.

You’ll often find appositive phrases in fiction too, and now you’ll know why these phrases are set off with a comma. Here are a couple of examples from novels I had sitting on my desk. The first one is from In the Shade of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner:

Finally, when it felt like we’d traveled to the edge of the world, one of the soldiers announced that we’d reached Prey Veng, a province whose name means “endless forest.”

“A province whose name means ‘endless forest’ ” is an appositive because it’s saying what Prey Veng is. It’s a noun phrase that is just telling us in a different way what the noun was that came before the comma.

Here’s another one from the novel Fated by Alyson Nöel:

“But Daire, we’ve been given a chance, an opportunity to help you in a nonclinical, all-natural kind of way, and I feel we have to at least give it a go.”

“An opportunity to help you in a nonclinical, all-natural kind of way” is an appositive in this sentence, and it’s set off by commas. It’s just telling us what the speaker considers a chance to be.

What We Learned

Thanks again to Dale for sending me the screenshot of that Garmin ad. It turned out to be a great lead-in to learn that you shouldn’t use a comma to separate a subject from its verb, that pauses don’t always mean you need a comma, and to dig deeper into appositives and commas.

Web Bonus

Two more examples from In the Shade of the Banyan (appositives are italicized).

How disconcerting to think that this was all that was left of Om Bau, just her things, reduced to ashes.

To the right of the pond stood a white stupa, a bell-shaped dome with a long golden spire that rose and tapered off until it blended with the sky.

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Commas with Restrictive Elements

* After I posted this, it occurred to me that I should be more specific about this comma rule. Something like "Today's record, is tomorrow's motivation," is wrong because the comma separates the subject from its verb; but sometimes you will have commas between a subject and its verb. In fact, appositives could be an example: The tree, a willow, grew in the yard. In that example, there are commas between the subject ("tree") and its verb ("grew"), but they have a function other than just separating the subject and verb.

Stencil Comma image from Shutterstock


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.