How to Effectively Use Commas in Academic Writing (Part 1)

Commas are one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks: the idea that commas can be added to indicate pauses must be dispensed with. In writing, comma usage is guided by sentence structure and readability to enable clear communication of ideas. In formal writing, there are specific rules that must be followed which we will explore at length in this article.

Commas that Separate Elements in a List

One of the fundamental uses of a comma is to separate items in a list. In American English, a comma (also known as serial comma or Oxford comma) is inserted before the conjunction separating the last item in the list.

Points to remember:

  • Commas are used to separate more than two elements in a list.
  • Use a semicolon instead of a comma to segregate list items that have internal commas.
  • The concluding conjunction may not always be “and”; “or” and “as well as” are also used for this purpose.

For instance,

The vouchers were distributed to the residents, schools, and colleges.


Introductory Comma

A comma is used after introductory words, phrases, and clauses that provide the background, stance, or transition for the main (independent) clause.

Introductory Words

Introductory words convey a sense of continuity from one sentence or point of view to the one following it.

Examples of introductory words: Howevermoreoverthusthereforefurther, etc.

Example: Therefore, the sample size had to be increased to include the observed anomalies.


Introductory Phrases and Clauses

Introductory phrases introduce an idea or thought that is elaborated in the main clause. Introductory phrases do not have a subject or a verb, unlike introductory clauses.

Introductory phraseOn one hand, grouping students by a response to positive facial expressions allows them to react at their own pace.

Introductory clause: Since zoologists have been trying to interpret how animals communicate, an experimental study will attempt to interpret sounds made by diverse species of mammals.


Use a comma to separate two independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction. The acronym FANBOYS can help you remember these conjunctions.

F – for

A – and

N – nor

B – but (not because, which is a subordinating conjunction)

O – or

Y – yet

S – so

Clauses that can convey the entire meaning on their own are called independent clauses. They are joined by suitable coordinating conjunctions to communicate a sense of continuity. Preferably, two independent clauses can be separated by a period and represented as separate sentences. However, transition words and phrases, as well as coordinating conjunctions, are used to indicate the logical flow of a sentence or an argument.


  1. In this study, sensitivity to feedback in classrooms was not considered for the outcome, but it is relevant and should have been considered.

  2. The supply chain of the organizations observed had been extensively affected after the Fukushima disaster, yet they resumed operation soon after.

Each of the seven coordinating conjunctions plays a different role in a sentence and must be appropriately used to link the independent clauses.


Comma Splice

A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are separated by a comma instead of being joined by a suitable conjunction. Such commas should be corrected.

For instance: Residents complained about the substantial increase in noise pollution when the development project began, nobody has taken this into consideration.

Such issues can be resolved by,

  • Using a semicolon to separate the two independent clauses: Residents complained about the substantial increase in noise pollution when the development project began; nobody has taken this into consideration.
  • Using a period to separate the two independent clauses: Residents complained about the substantial increase in noise pollution when the development project began. Nobody has taken this into consideration.

One of the most prominent uses of a comma is with respect to parenthetical elements. Parenthetical elements are considered additional information; that is, even if such information is removed from a sentence, the sentence would still convey the intended message completely. Parenthetical elements, however, are often best judged contextually, and this will be discussed in detail in How to Use Commas in Academic Writing (Part 2).

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