Shirley's Articles / Grammar, Punctuation, Vocabulary

Comma Chameleons

Blending in with your Text

Back in the 80s, Boy George and Culture Club had a song with a first line that I always thought sounded like, “Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon…” I thought that was a terrific first line because commas sometimes act like punctuation chameleons.

Of course, I soon realised that’s not what Boy George was singing after all, but the premise still holds true for commas. They can be confusing and have odd little characteristics that are sometimes hard to understand. You might ask, “What difference does it really make?” The answer is that incorrect punctuation can not only change the meaning of your writing, but it can also cause your reader to lose focus on what you are saying. Instead, they start thinking about how you are saying it and why it sounds odd to them.

While there are oodles of rules that govern the use of commas, for most business writing, you need to be aware of four primary uses:

1. Commas are used between two complete thoughts (i.e. full sentences) that use a co-ordinating conjunction to connect them. Sounds scary, right? Not really. Co-ordinating conjunctions include and, but, or, yet, for (like ‘because’), no, and so.

Example: The email was sent on Monday, but Mr. Lu did not receive it until Thursday.

Notice the two complete thoughts: The email was sent on Monday and Mr. Lu did not receive it until Thursday. They are connected with the conjunction ‘but’, so a comma goes after the first sentence and before the co-ordinating conjunction.

2. Commas also need to be used after long introductory phrases. Often the phrases are prepositional phrases (if you’re into grammar) but sometimes the first word is something else.

Example: After replacing the cartridge in the laser printer, you must always make sure the door closes completely.

In this example, you can see that the main sentence, which has a subject AND verb, is: You must always make sure the door closes completely. The comma came after the prepositional introductory phrase before the complete sentence.

3. The third primary place we used commas is in lists. This is usually a pretty easy one to figure out.

Example: The committee will comprise Sue, Kara, James, and Lynn.

Clearly, commas need to go between each of the items in the list. One variation you might see is a sentence that has the last comma missing. Some companies prefer you to put the comma before the word ‘and,’ and other companies don’t. Either way is correct, so just use the standard format for your own company and be consistent.

The final main place for using a comma is when you are adding information that could be placed in brackets. It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Let’s look at this example. Can you see anything wrong with it?

Example: The new employee, Mary will start work on Monday.

The root sentence is “The new employee will start work on Monday.” When we add in the person’s name, we really need a comma after her name as well as before it. This is a really important rule, and it’s one that many people don’t use.

Let’s take a look at some more examples:

The new shopping mall, which opens on Monday, has 43 stores.

In this case, the root sentence is ‘The new shopping mall has 43 stores. When we drop in the qualifying phrase, we need two commas around it.

Check out some more examples:

We need John, and possibly Doreen as well, to help with this project.
Mr John Brown, Training Manager, will interview you tomorrow.

Finally, check out this sentence, which could be read in two ways

Mary, my assistant, will call you soon
In this example, Mary is ‘my assistant’.

Mary, my assistant will call you soon.
Without the second comma, Mary is the person you are talking to.

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Shirley is an international bestselling author. She has established herself as a leading authority in email and business writing skills. Her international bestseller Model Business Letters, Emails & Other Business Documents 7th edition sold over half a million copies worldwide and has been translated into 17 languages. Her book Email Essentials reached #2 in the USA for publishers Marshall Cavendish International. Find out more about Shirley at

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