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Write the Right Word - Commas

Whether you use a comma often depends on the sentence. Here are some general rules:

  • Do not use a comma before conjunctions such as "and" and "or" in a simple series. For example: "I worked on the program with Tom, Dick and Harry." "She couldn't decide whether to give the book to Ann, Jane or Lynn."
  • However, use a comma before the last conjunction in a series if the final element of the series also contains a conjunction. For example: "The North Dakota Department of Agriculture, North Dakota Wheat Commission, and NDSU Carrington and Hettinger Research Extension Centers hosted the workshop."
  • Use a comma before the last conjunction in a series if the elements of the series are complex phrases. For example: "Producers need to consider a number of factors in deciding when to harvest, including whether the corn crop has reached the proper stage of maturity, whether the corn is at the optimum moisture level, and whether the weather conditions are favorable."
  • Use commas to set off nonessential phrases, which provide additional details but can be left out and the sentence still makes sense. For example: "NDSU researchers have found that barley and distillers grains fed together provide a safe, palatable diet for ruminant animals, including feed and dairy cattle." You could end the sentence after "ruminant animals" and it still makes sense.
  • Do not set off essential phrases with commas. Essential phrases are critical to the reader understanding what the writer intended. For example: "More information is available in the NDSU Extension Service publication 'Ground-source Heat Pumps.'" The reader wouldn't know which publication the writer was referring to if the name isn't included.
Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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