Using Commas, Since They’re Needed

Meaning is everything, and that little comma can really make a big difference in your meaning. I especially pay attention to phrases that have because and since in them. See if you can tell the difference in meaning with each pair of sentences:

  • I didn’t go to the store because you were angry.
  • I didn’t go to the store, because you were angry.

In the first instance, my going to the store had nothing to do with your anger, and that’s what I’m telling you. But with the comma, the sentence means I didn’t go to the store for the reason that you were angry. Your anger kept me from going to the store, which is the opposite of the first sentence’s meaning.

  • I played football since I was nine.
  • I played football, since I was nine.

The word since has some different meanings, so by using the comma, you’re being clear. In the first sentence, I started playing football at age nine. The second sentence gives the reason I played football—because I was nine, implying you were at a qualifiable age. So, to quote my eighth-grade English teacher, Mr. Holtby: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.”

6 Responses to “Using Commas, Since They’re Needed”

  1. LInda February 15, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    Enjoy your posts on writing. My editors taught never to use “since” to mean “because.” “Since” should only be used to indicate time, not in the colloquial manner as a shorthand for “because.” Probably because of the confusion that results that you describe here. Maybe using a comma is one solution, but I think the better solution is to stop using the two interchangeably in writing.
    thanks for your work.

  2. Barbara McDowell Whitt February 15, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    C.S., when I go back through the diary entries I recorded 50 years ago as I transcribe them into my blog, I find that I used a lot of commas, often to match a pattern of speech if I had been speaking the words. I would rather use too many commas than not enough. However, you have nudged me into taking a closer look at the meaning I am conveying when I use them.

  3. Laura Lee Nutt @LauraLeeNutt March 20, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    This is an excellent bit of grammar to cover. I do not think many people think about or are aware of the subtle difference the comma can make in these instances. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Louise March 1, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    I teach ESL and also do translation and editing work. When checking my comma usage, I came upon this post.

    I believe the first example using “since” is grammatically incorrect. I would suggest that “since” is a signal to use present perfect:

    I have been playing football since I was nine. (from 9 years of age until today)

  5. Everton April 29, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

    Trying to improve my grammar skills to a higher level, but I would like to have the help from you guys thank you!

  6. Jason Wu October 11, 2019 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for your examples. I was wondering why sometimes a comma is dropped before adverbial phrases or clauses.

    However, I just hold the opposite view about the first examples.

    “I didn’t go to the store because you were angry,” means your anger prevented from going to the store.

    “I didn’t go to the store, because you were angry,” where “I didn’t go to the store” is the main fact, and “because you were angry” is nonrestrictive and the information to be understood as nonessential to the basic meaning of the sentence. The because clause merely provides evidence for the fact that I didn’t go to the store.

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