Comma placement: these are the rules you need to know

Comma rules

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The comma is undoubtedly one of the head-scratchers in the German language. But it must not be neglected, because it provides order in the sentences, makes clear what belongs to what and what value a word has in a statement. Make yourself aware of the most important rules of Commas consciously again and again, then you will quickly notice that a lot can be deduced by logical thinking. By the way, little tricks often help you to answer the question "comma or not?" to answer.

What is the purpose of the comma in the sentence?

The comma serves to break up a sentence, making it easier for the reader to grasp the meaning.

Commas for enumerations

The most well-known comma rule is: If you line up several similar phrases or adjectives, there must be a comma between them. You can string together anything in a sentence. Examples are:

  • Managers, employees and freelancers were invited.
  • The secretary opened the envelope, read the letter, processed the case and filed the letter.

It is easy to find out whether the comma is in the right place. Replace the comma once with an "and". If the sentence still makes sense? "Executives and Employees and freelancers were invited" – not nice, but correct. Then the comma is also placed correctly at this point. By the way: The last enumerated element is usually followed by an "and", there is no comma in front of it.

Caution: "Fine English tea" – shouldn’t there be a comma between "fine" and "English"?? No! It is true that adjectives strung together must normally be separated by a comma. However, there are some connections between adjectives and nouns that are particularly close, such as with "English tea" or even "Chinese vase". In these cases the comma is omitted. Here, too, there is a simple test: Reverse the order of the two adjectives once: Is the sentence still correct or does it make sense in a different way?? "English fine tea" – this has a different meaning than before. The adjective is too closely connected to the noun to be separated from it just like that. So there is no comma between the two adjectives.

Commas for run-on sentences

Adjuncts that define a noun more precisely are enclosed by two commas (so-called paired commas): Mr. Meier, my boss, and I are going to Frankfurt. You can see from this sentence why it is so important to put the conjunction in paired commas. Because this makes it clear that "Mr. Meier" is the boss. So there are two people on the way. If there were only one comma in the sentence, the meaning would be different: "Mr. Meier, my boss and I are going to Frankfurt" – here, Mr. Meier and the boss are two different people, so there are three people on the way. There is a very simple test to recognize an appositive clause: You can omit it without changing the meaning of the sentence. Try it out with our example sentence.

Commas for conjunctions

Conjunctions connect clauses or words. These include "and", "or", "but", etc. Some require the comma, others replace it, you have already read this in the penultimate paragraph.

As a rule, no comma is used with the following conjunctions: and, or, as well as, both … and, either … or, neither … nor, both … and. It is difficult that conjunctions often introduce subordinate clauses, which in turn require commas. There is also no comma in simple comparisons with "as" and "how":

  • The package is heavier than the parcel.
  • This letter costs as much as the other one.

Attention: If "as" or "like" introduces a (comparative) subordinate clause, you must insert a comma (s. also below):

  • The package is heavier than we thought.
  • This letter costs as much as we estimated in advance.

Conjunctions that require the comma express a contradiction, e.g., a comma. B.but, however, not, but, partly … partly, on the one hand … on the other hand.

  • The package did not come by mail, but by messenger.
  • The package came by messenger, not by mail.
  • On the one hand, he was an expert in his field, on the other hand, he was very sloppy.
Subordinate clauses and commas

Subordinate clauses must be separated from the main clause with a comma: The colleague works because he is paid for it. The mark of a main clause is that it can stand by itself. "The colleague works" is a simple main clause of subject and predicate that can stand alone. The subordinate clause "… because he is paid for it," on the other hand, makes no sense in this form.

Extra tip: You can easily recognize subordinate clauses by the fact that the finite (inflected) verb (here "will") is in the last position. In a main clause, however, the finite verb is always in the second position.

The difficulty often lies in recognizing where a subordinate clause ends again. The colleague works because he is paid for it, and otherwise takes care of his hobby. Here you have a subordinate clause ("because he gets paid for it") inserted into a main clause ("The colleague works and otherwise takes care of his hobby"). In such a case, you must enclose the subordinate clause with commas, i.e. put a comma before and after it.

Nesting is also possible between subordinate clauses when a subordinate clause is inserted into another subordinate clause. The colleague works because he is paid so well for it that he does not want to give up his job, and otherwise takes care of his hobby. Here, too, you must enclose the respective subordinate clauses individually with commas. But such sentences are very difficult to read and understand. Therefore, you should better make two or three sentences out of them anyway.

Commas between main clauses

German spelling allows you freedom of choice in some cases – this also applies to the juxtaposition of main clauses, at least when they are connected with "and": The letter was lost and the e-mail did not arrive. Here, two main clauses are connected by an "and". In these cases, the comma is possible, but not mandatory. If, on the other hand, you string together main clauses without a conjunction, you must always place a comma between them. The letter was lost, the e-mail did not arrive.

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