In the October issue, we talked about three different situations that require a comma: to punctuate items in a series of three or
more, to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, and to set off nonessential matter anywhere in the sentence.
This month, we’ll tackle the three other major uses for commas: to set off
introductory matter, to separate coordinate adjectives, and to set off a
direct quotation of 50 words or fewer.
4. Use a comma to set off introductory matter, especially where an introductory phrase answers where, when, why, how, or to what extent the following matter occurred. For example:
• Before signing, parties should read the agreement carefully.
• As a result, summary judgment is appropriate.
• In federal court, attorneys generally dress
Where you have a brief introductory phrase,
and the verb follows that phrase closely,
the comma becomes more discretionary than
• During trial plaintiff left the courtroom
several times. (vs. During trial, plaintiff left
the courtroom several times.)
• After dinner Petey shredded my napkin.
(vs. After dinner, Petey shredded my
• Soon the Court will issue its decision. (vs.
Soon, the Court will issue its decision.)
If you’ve read my other columns on commas,
it may not surprise you to learn that I favor the
comma even where the introductory phrase is
You always use a comma, how-
ever, where the short introductory
(or closing) word or phrase consti-
tutes a direct address:
• Your Honor, the defense misrep-
resents the law.
• Jennifer, please tell the jury what you saw next.
• Have you seen Magic Mike XXL, Susie?
5. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives and adverbs.
Coordinate adjectives and adverbs modify the noun or verb
rather than each other. For example:
• The suspect is a tall, slim, handsome chauffeur. (Tall, slim,
and handsome all modify chauffeur.)
• Ted Bundy was a vicious, remorseless, diabolical killer.
(Vicious, remorseless, and diabolical all modify killer.)
• A rogue officer deliberately, systematically concealed exculpatory evidence. (Deliberately and systematically modify
14 ARIZONA ATTORNEY NOVEMBER 2015
THE LEGAL WORD by Susie Salmon
Susie Salmon is Assistant Director
of Legal Writing and Associate Clinical
Professor of Law at The University of
Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.
Before joining Arizona Law, she spent
nine years as a commercial litigator at
large firms in Tucson and Los Angeles.
Even where both adjectives modify the same
noun, however, you do not separate them
with a comma where the final adjective and
the noun form a phrase:
• As he grew, it became clear that Petey
would not be a big yellow Labrador.
• Nina Totenberg, an excellent legal
reporter, elucidated the Court’s
In the first example, big modifies the unit
yellow Labrador. Similarly, in the second
modifies the unit
legal reporter. In
those cases, a
comma compromises clarity. If
you said that
was an excellent,
for instance, your
think you intended to invoke
can help determine whether adjectives or adverbs
First, see whether
using each one
alone with the
noun or verb
makes sense. The
suspect was a tall chauffeur? Check. The
suspect was a slim chauffeur? Check. The
suspect was a handsome chauffeur? Check.
You have coordinate adjectives and should
separate them with a comma. The officer
deliberately concealed evidence? Check. The
officer systematically concealed evidence?
Check. You have coordinate adverbs and
should separate them with a comma.
You also can test this by inserting an and
between the adjectives. The tall and dark
and handsome chauffeur? That works. You
have coordinate adjectives and should separate them with a comma.
If you said that Nina
Totenberg was an
reader might think
you intended to
No Comma Drama (Part Two)
—continued on p. 78