Commas tend to give many writers problems. Here are four steps that will help you to proofread for commas.

Step 1

  • Give yourself enough time to read your paper s l o w l y several times. Double-space your paper and print it out. If you try to proofread on-screen, you will probably miss errors in your paper because they are harder to see.
  • Look at your paper one paragraph or page at a time.
  • Look for only comma mistakes. You can check for other mistakes later.
  • Use a colored pen or highlighter.

Step 2

  • Know what you're looking for. Keep a list next to you of the errors you tend to make, or of those your instructor is likely to notice.
  • Keep a reference book, dictionary, website, or personal cheat sheet handy.
  • All writers rely on dictionaries and handbooks when they proofread.

Step 3

Review the rules for the errors you tend to make. Here's a quick list for comma rules.

Commas are commonly used:

  • Between items in a list, including a comma before and.
    • I'm going shopping for coffee, cream, and popcorn.
  • Before the conjunctions and, but, or or when there is a complete sentence before and after the conjunction. Otherwise, don't use a comma.
    • Yes to a comma: I want to read this book, and then you and I can go out.
    • No to a comma: I want to read this book and then look for others by the same author.
  • After an introductory phrase or clause.
    • In the middle of the night, life in the woods comes alive with owls and raccoons.
    • When I was a little girl back in Oklahoma, I loved to listen to the owls in the dark woods near my house.

Commas are often used incorrectly to join two sentences. A more complete guide to commas can be found online or in a writer's handbook.

Step 4

Here are some strategies for proofreading.

  • Print out your paper in 14-point type so that you can see every punctuation mark clearly.
  • Start at the beginning, covering up the rest of your paper as you focus on each line. If you're working on a screen, use the mouse as a highlighter.
  • Start at the end of your paper and proofread for comma errors one sentence at a time. If you notice other types of errors, deal with them later.
  • Read your paper aloud—slowly—and read only what you see (not what you intend).
  • Go through your paper and circle every comma you're unsure about and every place you suspect you might need a comma. Then review your grammar handbook to see whether or not commas are called for in these places.
  • Ask someone else to help you proofread your paper—a tutor in the Writing Center, for example. Use a spell check computer program, but don't rely on grammar and punctuation checkers because they are not reliable.

The information on this page was written by Sandy Eckard and Ben Rafoth

More Writing Help

The Kathleen Jones White Writing Center provides tutoring services, workshops, and writing resources.