Hey! I’m going to be honest with you – ask a native speaker where you have to use commas in a sentence, and most will look back at you with a blank face! Why? Well, most native speakers don’t care that much about them! Some sprinkle commas all over their writing, others use none at all – and most of the time, it doesn’t make a huge difference because English speakers are rarely judged by their comma use!
But, in the IELTS exam, a misplaced comma can make a BIG difference to your score for Grammatical Range and Accuracy – particularly if you are aiming for a 7.0+. So, in today’s blog post, I want to go through the rules of where you definitely should, and where you definitely shouldn’t use a comma in your writing!
Check what you already know
Let’s do a quick analysis test to see how many of the important rules you already know. Look at the following 5 sentences and add commas where needed:
- Young children find it very easy to pick new languages as they can still access the part of the brain that naturally learns language. As a result they can pick up grammar vocabulary and pronunciation very quickly.
- Drivers would be less inclined break the current laws if the government introduced heavy fines for breaking the speed limit.
- One of the benefits of space travel is that it provides us with useful technology.
- Whereas social media allows people to keep in contact more easily the quality of that information is of a much lower quality than face to face conversation.
- Music give people the feeling of being connected so they feel less alone.
So, if you want a high score for Coherence and Cohesion, it is essential that you show the relationship between your sentences. One way to do this is to use transition signals. Now, some teachers calls these “signpost words” or “connecting words” – honestly, it doesn’t matter what you call them as long as you use them!!!! Common transition signals are:
|Order:||first / second / finally|
|Result:||therefore / consequently / as a result / thus / hence|
|Contrast:||however / on the other hand|
|Addition:||furthermore / in addition / moreover / likewise / similarly
|Example:||for example / for instance
And, you can use transition signals in two places in a sentence, but where you put the transition signal will change the number of commas you need:
1. AT START OF A SENTENCE (one comma) Most of the time, you will use a transition signal to start a sentence. When you do, you should immediately follow it with a comma:
👉 Many students have no real experience in their field of work when they graduate. Consequently, many struggle when their first enter the workplace. ✅
2. AFTER THE SUBJECT OF A SENTENCE (two commas) That said, if you only ever use transition signals at the beginning of sentence, they can start to feel a bit mechanical in their use. Therefore, it can be useful to move the transition signal AFTER the subject of the sentence. When you do this, you will need a comma before and after the transition signal:
👉 Many students have no real experience in their field of work when they graduate. Many, consequently, struggle when their first enter the workplace.✅
You can also put transition signals between clauses (i.e. so both clauses and the transition signal are inside ONE sentence). However, if you want to do this, you will need to use a semi-colon BEFORE the transition signal and a comma AFTER it:
👉 Many students have no real experience in their field of work when they graduate; consequently, many struggle when their first enter the workplace. = ONE SENTENCE ✅
However, my question would be WHY would you want to do this?! It would be much easier to simply STOP the sentence and start a new one with the transition signal at the beginning!!! I would avoid this option.
If you do want to keep everything inside ONE sentence, you can add “and” before the transition signal, and now you can once again just use TWO commas:
👉 Many students have no real idea experience in their field of work when they graduate and, consequently, many struggle when their first enter the workplace. = ONE SENTENCE ✅
Everybody knows the key to a GRA score is using a mix of complex sentences. if you don’t know what complex sentences are, well you can watch my free lesson to find out more. But very simply, they are sentences that contain TWO clauses that are joined by a subordinator. Common subordinators are:
Relationship Subordinators Reason: because / since / as
Time: when / while / as / after / until / before Contrast: while / whereas / although / despite / in spite of Conditional: if / unless Purpose: in order to / so that
Again, there are two rules for using commas in complex sentences. This time we will use either one or none, and the choice depends on the position of the subordinator.
1. Subordinator STARTS the sentence (comma) If you start a sentence with one of the words above, you need to place a comma before the 2nd clause:
👉 Whereas the number of people living in a house increased, the amount living in a flat decreased. ✅
2. Subordinator is IN THE MIDDLE of a sentence (no comma) However, if we change the order of the clauses so the subordinator is now between the clauses, there is no need for a comma:
👉 The amount living in a flat decreased whereas the number of people living in a house increased ✅
Note that we NEVER put a comma directly after a subordinator!!! Many IELTS students think that “whereas” is a transition signal – it is NOT!!! You must never place a comma directly after “whereas”:
❌Whereas, I believe that students should learn practical subjects at university, others feel that they should learn more theoretical knowledge. ❌
And, if you use “whereas” with a comma and ONE clause, you really need to go and complete my Three Types of Contrast lesson NOW!!!
Listen to Nick and I discuss IELTS punctuation in this episode of the My IELTS Classroom podcast
So, compound sentences are created by joining two sentences with a coordinating conjunction. There are only SEVEN of these, and they are easy to remember because their first letters spell the word FANBOYS:
|Another negative idea||nor|
Again, we have two comma rules for this type sentence. But this time the rules are not connected to the position of the coordinating conjunction (as they must always come in the middle of two sentences)! No, now we have to look at the subject of the second sentence.
1. Second sentence HAS A SUBJECT (comma) If the sentence AFTER the coordinating conjunction has a subject, then you must use a comma before the conjunction.
👉 I fell over, and I broke my leg. ✅
2. Second sentence HAS NO SUBJECT (no comma) However, if there is NO subject after the conjunction, you don’t need a comma.
👉I fell over and broke my leg. ✅
The truth is that 99% of the time, nobody will remember if you forget to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction. So, if you can’t remember the rule, just don’t use one!!!!!
If you want to know more about how to make compound sentences, just click on the link to watch my free lesson.
Items in a List
When you are giving examples in your essay, it can be useful to give a list of items. When you do, you need to place a comma between each item in the list, and use an “and” between the final two items in the list:
👉 People today often have many unhealthy habits including eating food that is high in calories, having a sedentary lifestyle, and drinking alcohol to excess. ✅
A lot of students end lots with “etc” – however, this is not necessary. It is better to have THREE ITEMS in a list and simply end after the third.
❌ People often eat fast food, such as burgers, french fries, fried chicken and etc. ❌
👉 People often eat fast food, such as burgers, french fries, and fried chicken. ✅
OK, so these are four areas where we DO need to use commas, but I want to end this lesson by looking at places where students add commas where they shouldn’t! In fact, adding unnecessary commas can be far more damaging than forgetting the rules above!
❌ As a way to join sentences ❌
One very common mistake made by IELTS test-takers is trying to join two sentences only with a comma. There are a number of names for sentences that contain this type of mistake – they can be called “run-on sentences” or “comma-splices”, but I call them “magic comma sentences”. That’s because the student thinks that a comma has the “magic” to join sentences – IT DOES NOT!!!!
❌ Top managers are often paid high salaries, they earn a lot of money for their companies through their contacts. = MAGIC COMMA ❌
Every time you have two clauses in a sentence, you MUST use either a conjunction or a subordinator to join your sentences – a comma is NEVER enough!!!!!
👉 Top managers are often paid high salaries because they earn a lot of money for their companies through their contacts. = complex sentence ✅
👉 Top managers are often paid high salaries, for they earn a lot of money for their companies through their contacts. = compound sentence ✅
❌ After “that” in the middle of a sentence ❌
Finally, many students have a habit of automatically adding a comma after “that” in the middle of a sentence – this is a mistake!
❌ I believe that, sportsmen should be paid a high salary. ❌
❌ One of the reasons for stress is that, people have no work-life balance. ❌
We use “that” in these sentences to show that the object of the sentence is a whole clause! You must never separate the “that” from the rest of the clause!
👉I believe that sportsmen should be paid a high salary. ✅
👉 One of the reasons for stress is that people have no work-life balance. ✅
If you find this rule confusing to understand, don’t worry – JUST NEVER USE A COMMA AFTER THAT!!!
OK! So, those are all of our comma rules. Hopefully now you will find it easy to add commas to the five sentence at the beginning of the lesson:
- Young children find it very easy to pick new languages as they can still access the part of the brain that naturally learns language. As a result, they can pick up grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation very quickly. (three commas – one after the transition signal at the start of the sentence, and two between the items in the list)
- Drivers would be less inclined break the current laws if the government introduced heavy fines for breaking the speed limit. (no commas – subordinator between clauses in complex sentence)
- One of the benefits of space travel is that it provides us with useful technology. (no comma after that in the middle of a sentence!)
- Whereas social media allows people to keep in contact more easily, the quality of that communication is of a much lower quality than face to face conversation. (one comma – subordinator at start of complex sentence)
- Music give people the feeling of being connected, so they feel less alone. (one comma – there is a subject in the sentence after the coordinating conjunction)
Phew – that was a long post! But, if you want to achieve a 6.5 or higher in the writing exam, this is a relatively small amount of information to learn to be able to show the examiner that you have “good control of punctuation.” If you liked this lesson, then you will love my video courses – you can check out my full grammar, essay, report and letter courses here. 🚀