with interruptions

“Let’s eat Grandpa!” vs “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Commas save lives.

These commas can replace parentheses or em dashes interchangeably (just depending on what level of emphasis you prefer for that sentence). They can set off a dependent clause, an adverbial or participial phrase, an addressee like Grandpa above, all kinds of non-essential info.

Be sure to use two, like this, when they interrupt mid-sentence. That way you could move or remove the whole interruption as though the commas were the handles on a tray to lift it from your sentence.

Professional Examples

  • Oscar Wilde, who is almost never wrong, suggested that it is perilous to promiscuously contradict people who are much younger than yourself.
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
  • “What is your evaluation of the instructor?” asks question number eight, entreating them to circle a number between five (excellent) and one (poor).
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
  • By rebelling against established ways of seeing and saying things, genius helps us to apprehend how malleable the present is and how promising and fraught with danger is the future.
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”
  • Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot.
~from Stephen King’s On Writing
  • He might last for weeks without food, but no animal, however mighty, can do without water for any extended period of time.
~from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
  • The story made your mother laugh, though, so my labors are repaid.
~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
  • Above all, she wanted to look as though she had not given the matter a moment’s thought, and that would take time.
~from Ian McEwan’s Atonement
  • “If you’re happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count?” Estha asked.
~from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
  • Over the past few years, the physical layout of my university has been changing. To put it a little indecorously, the place is looking more and more like a retirement spread for the young.
~from Mark Edmundson’s “On the Uses of a Liberal Education”

dependent clause examples

  • If it were possible to convey in words the true experience of a dream, we probably wouldn’t need dreams in the first place.

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

  • When what we see catches us off guard, and when we write it as realistically and openly as possible, it offers hope.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

  • These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.

~from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Past Student Examples

  • The consequences for filing bankruptcy can, however, be worse than expected by a debtor looking for quick freedom from excessive credit. ~Andy
  • I am quiet most often; however, I have my moments. ~Mitch

How Parenthetical Commas Work

Interruption, independent clause.

Independent, interruption, clause.

Independent clause, interruption.

The description “parenthetical” helps show how these commas function: they take the place of parentheses to set off a removable and non-essential piece of information. While parentheses would make the information more understated and em dashes would emphasize the information, commas are the more ordinary and subtle middle option.

These parenthetical elements can come at the beginning, middle, or end of the sentence and generally add some kind of description. Place the interruption in the most logical place in the sentence, right before or after what it describes.

When the interruption is considered essential information, commas can be omitted in certain cases, especially if the interruption is short.

Omitting parenthetical commas can also be a stylistic choice, based on context, such as in the final two professional examples above: both are from the same novel, using dependent clauses starting with because, but one uses a comma while the other doesn’t. The sentence without a comma rushes into the dependent clause, while the sentence with a comma gives you a moment to pause and digest the word justice. This is the instance where you may have heard to “use a comma where you need a pause.”

Self Check

Like with em dashes and parentheses, the piece broken off by the commas should be completely removable. Cover it up and check that the rest of the sentence can stand on its own. If your parenthetical phrase comes in the middle, make sure you have a second comma leading back into the main clause.


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