Using a comma is a point of confusion for a great many people, so this post looks at when commas are used and how. What is important to remember, and as you will notice with some of the explanations for the below ‘rules’, is that commas are there to guide your reader through a text.

A common misconception is that a comma is placed in a document as a respiratory aid and an indicator of when to pause or breathe during reading aloud. This was indeed the case in the 16th and 17th centuries, when punctuation first came into common use. The first punctuation in Britain dates back to the 7th century, but it is no longer the case today that commas mark respiratory breaks.

A comma is placed to prevent reader misunderstandings. Many people overuse commas and pepper them needlessly throughout a text. This, too, has long gone out of style because it has the adverse effect of overwhelming one’s reader and obscuring the commas that are necessary and would otherwise be helpful.

The following are the various uses of the comma in UK English writing in the present day.

Listing comma

This comma is placed to clarify separate items in a list:

  • The colours of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
  • Should I buy apples, oranges or pears.

As the above examples demonstrate, there is no need for a comma after ‘indigo’ or ‘oranges’ because the joining words ‘and’ and ‘or’ serve to separate them from the other words listed.

However, sometimes an additional comma is required after the joining word for clear guidance, and this is called the Oxford comma.

For example,

  • The menu choices are burger and fries, fish and chips, lasagne, pizza, and risotto.

The last comma that is placed after ‘pizza’ is what is named the Oxford comma, and it is necessary to clarify that the final option is ‘risotto’ and not ‘pizza and risotto’. The Oxford comma prevents a misinterpretation of the menu that might occur without its presence.

The Oxford comma is not used as a matter of course in listings in UK English but only where there is a possibility of misinterpretation. On the contrary, in US English, the Oxford comma, also known as the ‘serial’ or ‘Harvard’ comma, is frequently used as standard.

Bracketing comma

The bracketing comma is also true to its name; it is used to bracket off content that is additional.

In the following examples, the sentences can function perfectly without the addition of the extra clause, so the extra clauses are bracketed within commas to alert the reader to the fact that these provide supplementary information:

  • The beautiful lady, who was always drawing admiring looks when she was out and about, was incredibly intelligent.
  • Without bracketed clause = The beautiful lady was incredibly intelligent.
  • We decided to visit Paris, the city of love, for our holidays.
  • Without bracketed clause = We decided to visit Paris for our holidays.

A bracketing comma can also function, as brackets do in a sentence, together with a full stop. For example,

  • She wore a beautiful dress, a gift from her mother.
  • Without bracketed clause = She wore a beautiful dress.

Joining comma

A joining comma joins two independent clauses in one sentence and is typically used with a coordinating conjunction.

Coordinating conjunctions can be remembered with the acronym FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So. For more about conjunctions, please read this post.

Notice the use of an Oxford comma in the above list to avoid confusion of the listed words with the functional conjunction ‘and’.) For more information on other parts of speech, please see the relevant post.

Joining comma examples:

  • I love walking, and my dog does too.
  • Henry goes swimming regularly, but Mark tends to avoid it.

Both of those sentences could have been split into two sentences:

  • I love walking. My dog does too.
  • Henry goes swimming regularly. Mark tends to avoid it.

The coordinating conjunction enables the two to become one sentence, and the comma indicates that this is the case.

It is important to be aware that a comma is not always necessary before a conjunction. In the following sentences a comma is not necessary:

  • People can contact each other without considering boundaries or cultural differences for extended periods.
  • They will arrive at the destination and follow the designated plan.

In both examples, and others like them, the words that follow the conjunction form a dependent clause. These are words that cannot stand alone as a sentence and are dependent on the main clause preceding them. For more about clauses, please read the following post.

Gapping comma

A gapping comma is perhaps the least commonly needed. A gapping comma is used in the place of a word or words to avoid repeating an identical phrase unnecessarily.

Here is an example, which also includes listing commas and an Oxford comma. The first example is how the sentence would appear without the use of a couple of gapping commas to tidy it up. The second, is refined with two gapping commas:

  • Turkey is renowned for its history and monuments, Spain is renowned for its sunshine and fiestas, Holland is renowned for its cheese, windmills and tulips.
  • Turkey is renowned for its history and monuments, Spain, for its sunshine and fiestas, and Holland, for its cheese, windmills and tulips.

So, in this case, the gapping comma prevents a dull, repetitive and needlessly long-winded sentence.

Vocative comma

Traditionally, a comma of direct address precedes a person’s name. For example,

  • The girl, Mary, said that she was very happy. (This is also a form of bracketing comma since the name provides extra information.)
  • John, could you pass me the butter?
  • Thanks for your help, Sarah.
  • I’ll see you on the other side, Sam.

However, the name is only set off with a comma when it is not a part of the main clause. For example,

  • I told Jenny she had been very silly.
  • Tom said he was very tired.

In the above cases, Jenny and Tom are integral to the scaffolding of the sentences and should not be set off with a comma.

Adverbial comma

An adverbial comma separates an adverbial phrase, adverbial clause or word from the clause or sentence that follows it. The following are examples of adverbial words or phrases preceding a comma:

  • Moreover, the actor had performed very well.
  • Furthermore, there will be studies to prove this.
  • However, no one had ever seen the stone.
  • On the other hand, no one ever would.

The main subject and verb are in the main clauses that follow the comma, and the adverbial is not integrated into the sentence but it is introducing it.

The following example shows a sentence with an adverbial clause. A clause is a part of a sentence that includes a subject and a predicate (a verb and possible further words giving information about the subject):

  • Even though I was late for work, my boss still let me have tomorrow off.
  • If the above sentence were reordered with the adverbial clause at the end, there would be no need for a comma.

Please read the explanation given in the second example! It is common practice to start an English sentence with the subject:

  • My boss gave let me have the day off even though I was late for work.

Putting in an adverbial comma acknowledges that one has given priority to the adverbial phrase or clause over the main subject of the main clause of the sentence.


This post should offer clear guidance to those wishing to implement commas correctly according to British English grammar. Remember not to overuse commas and randomly place them needlessly, as many do, but rather place them thoughtfully according to the long-standing and logical rules for commas so that your readers will be aided in their comprehension of your writing, not hindered.

If you have any questions or comments, please do enter them below.


Crystal, David. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile Books, 2016)

Dreyer, Benjamin. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Penguin Random House, 2020)

Gwynne, N. M. Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English (Ebury Press/Random House, 2013)

Huddleston, Rodney, and others. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Hutchison, Hazel. Teach Yourself Writing Essays and Dissertations (Hodder Education, 2010)

Parrott, Martin. Grammar for English Language Teachers, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Quirk, Randolph, and others. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, reprint edn (Pearson, 2011)

Seely, John. Oxford A – Z of Grammar & Punctuation (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Trask, R. L. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Books, 1997)

New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005)


  1. This article is just great! The rules of comma usage in English have always seemed complicated to me, but thanks to your review I got a clear and understandable explanation.

    Your systematization of the rules and examples of their application make understanding comma usage much easier. I especially appreciated the mention of the differences between British and American style, which makes the article extra informative.

    Excellent work! 👍📝

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