Phrases can be used to replace nearly any part of speech in a sentence, but especially when you encounter longer phrases, it can feel necessary to add punctuation to separate these phrases from the rest of the sentence.

You are watching: What type of punctuation is necessary to set apart nonessential appositive phrases?

While there are certainly times when commas are needed to separate phrases from the rest of the sentence, there are other times when commas are better left out of the picture.

The best way to learn when and when not to use commas alongside phrases in your writing is to look at examples.

If you want to learn more about how to identify phrases, check out this post on chathamtownfc.net.

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The Basics of Punctuating Phrases3 Tips for Understanding How to Punctuate PhrasesApplying the Basics: Punctuating Phrases PracticeSummary for Punctuating Phrases

The Basics of Punctuating Phrases


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How do Writers Punctuate Noun Phrases?

Phrases can be divided into three main categories: noun phrases, verb phrases, and modifying phrases.

Noun Phrases

Noun phrases consist of a noun and all of its modifiers. They can replace any noun in the sentence, whether as subjects, objects, or subject complements.

Noun phrases often appear as appositive or gerund phrases, and each of these phrases has its own comma rules.

Appositive Phrases

An appositive phrase gives more information about or identifies a noun.

Usually, writers always want to separate appositive phrases from the rest of the sentence with commas. This is because the information in the appositive phrase is typically “non-essential,” or not necessary for understanding the sentence.

However, there are exceptions!

If the information in the appositive phrase is, in fact, “essential” or absolutely necessary for understanding the sentence, then no commas are needed.

Here are some examples:

Non-essential appositive phrase with commas:

Leonardo DiCaprio, the famous actor, visited my hometown yesterday.

In this sentence, the appositive phrase is non-essential because most readers already know who Leonardo DiCaprio is, and they would not need to know the information included in the appositive phrase.

Essential appositive phrase without commas:My cat Harold enjoys chasing squirrels while my cat George enjoys taking naps.

In this example, Harold and George are considered essential because the speaker has two different cats with distinct personalities. Therefore, the reader needs to know which cat the speaker is referring to in each instance.


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Gerund Phrases

Gerund phrases are words that are typically categorized as verbs but are used as nouns instead. Gerund phrases include a verb ending in -ing, an object, and modifiers.

These phrases can be used in any way that a noun is used, so as long as the subject or object that it is replacing would not usually require a comma, then the gerund phrase does not need one either.

Sitting on the front porch during a storm is one of my favorite activities.

In the example above, the gerund phrase replaces the subject. Since we never separate the subject from the verb with a comma, we would not do so here either.

I love sitting on my front porch during a storm.

Even though the gerund phrase is now taking the place of the verb’s direct object, we still would not use a comma since, again, we would not usually separate a verb from its object with one.

The only instance where a writer would use a comma with a gerund phrase is in a list like so:

Sitting on my front porch, watching a storm roll in, and sipping a hot cup of tea are some of my favorite things.

Here, since the writer lists three different subjects that all pair with the same verb, a comma is needed between each subject in this list.

How do Writers Punctuate Verb Phrases?

Verb phrases consist of the main verb and its auxiliaries, or helping verbs. Unlike adjectives and noun phrases, adverbs that modify the verb are not considered part of the verb phrase.

Like gerund phrases, commas are not needed alongside verb phrases unless those verb phrases are written in a list.

Here is an example:

I was wishing, hoping, and praying that school would be canceled today.

In the example above, the speaker wants to emphasize how much he wanted school to be canceled, so he used three different verbs within the same verb phrase to express that desire. Here, commas are essential.


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Secondly, since prepositional phrases are modifiers acting like adjectives or adverbs, if commas normally separate these modifiers, commas should be used to separate the prepositional phrases.

For example:

We drove over the river, through the woods, and across town to visit my grandmother.

Since the sentence above includes three modifying adverbial clauses after the verb, commas are needed between these phrases.

Participial Phrases

Participial phrases are made up of a present or past participle (a verb ending in -ing or -ed), an object, and any modifiers. These phrases act as adjectives and always modify nouns.

Like appositive phrases, participial phrases are separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma if the phrase is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Here are some examples:

Essential Participial Phrase: The girl wearing red Converses stole my lunch money.

Vs.

Non-Essential Participial Phrase: Walking down the street, I accidentally stepped in a puddle.

Additionally, if a participial phrase is separated from the noun that it modifies, a comma is needed to show the correct relationship.

For example:

Moana commanded Maui to take her to Te Fiti, determined to complete her quest.

Is Maui or Moana determined in the sentence above?

Because the writer included a comma, we know that the first noun, Moana, is being modified by the participial phrase. Without this necessary comma, readers can easily misunderstand the sentence by placing the modifier with the wrong noun.

Infinitive Phrases

Infinitive phrases are made up of an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb), an object, and any modifiers. Infinitive phrases can function as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns.

A comma is only needed with these phrases when the infinitive phrase is used as an adverb at the beginning of the sentence.

For example:

To get to work on time, I must take a shortcut through the park.Absolute Phrases

Absolute phrases contain a noun, a participle, and any modifiers or objects, and they modify entire sentences instead of a single word.

Given the length and complexity of absolute phrases, writers always separate them from the rest of the sentence to avoid confusion.

For example:

Their hearts racing, the soccer team anxiously waited for the referee’s decision on their last goal attempt.

Vs.

The soccer team anxiously waited for the referee’s decision on their last goal attempt, their hearts racing.

In both instances, commas are necessary to separate the absolute phrase from the independent clause that it modifies.


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Tip #1. If the information contained in the phrase is not essential to understanding the sentence, it must be set apart from the rest of the sentence by one or two commas

For example:

Our tour guide, an eccentric and talkative man, led us through the streets of London.

Because the appositive phrase that describes the tour guide is not necessary information for the reader to know, it is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

Tip #2. If the information contained in the phrase is essential to understanding the sentence, it must not be set apart from the rest of the sentence by commas

For example:

The nervous explorers stopped at the yawning cave’s entrance, hesitant to step any further.

Since the participle, yawning, is used to describe the noun that comes directly after it, a comma is not needed.

Tip #3. If two or more phrases are written in a list, then commas must separate each phrase from the other in the list

For example:

Peter Pan would never truly be himself until he learned to fight, to crow, and to play like he used to.

In this example, there is a list of three different infinitive phrases; therefore, these infinitives must be separated from one another by commas.


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Decide whether the phrases in the sentences below need to be separated by commas or left “as is”. Remember, if the phrase is essential for understanding the sentence, then commas must not be used. If the phrase is non-essential or included in a list of phrases, commas must be used to separate them.

1. Passing by the school library, she saw her friend reading a book.

In this sentence, passing by the school library is an absolute phrase that modifies the independent clause; therefore, it must have a comma between it and the clause that it modifies.

2. Eating lunch in the cafeteria can be a traumatizing experience for anyone.

In this sentence, eating lunch in the cafeteria is a gerund phrase acting like the noun of the sentence. Because you would not normally separate a subject from its verb with a comma, you would not do so here either.

3. To increase my chances of winning the contest, I submitted as many entries as were allowed.

In this sentence, to increase my chances of winning the contest is an infinitive phrase being used as an adverb; therefore, it must be followed by a comma.

4. A blue monster, a yellow bird, and a green grouch co-starred in the popular kid’s tv show.

In this sentence, a blue monster, a yellow bird, and a green grouch are a list of noun phrases that are all acting as the subject of the sentence. Since there are two or more noun phrases listed together, commas are needed.

5. Feeling revolted, Tiana reluctantly kissed the slimy frog.

In this sentence, feeling revolted is a participial phrase that modifies Tiana and introduces the independent clause. Therefore, it must be followed by a comma.

Pro tip: Always check to see if the phrase you are using is necessary to understand the sentence. If not, make sure to separate it from the rest of the sentence using commas.

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1. Do absolute phrases always or sometimes need to be separated from the independent clause by commas?

Answer: AlwaysCorrect Explanation: That’s right! Given the length and complexity of absolute phrases, writers always separate these phrases from the rest of the sentence to avoid confusion.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, given the length and complexity of absolute phrases, writers always separate these phrases from the rest of the sentence to avoid confusion.

2. Do writers always or sometimes separate participial phrases from the independent clause?

Answer: SometimesCorrect Explanation: That’s right! Participial phrases only have to be followed by a comma if they are used as an introduction to the independent clause. Otherwise, a comma is not needed.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, participial phrases only have to be followed by a comma if they are used as an introduction to the independent clause. Otherwise, a comma is not needed.

3. In this sentence, should a comma be used to separate the underlined appositive phrase?

Lin Manuel-Miranda the director, writer, and lead actor of Hamilton is a lyrical genius.

Answer: YesCorrect Explanation: That’s right! This sentence needs an almost ridiculous amount of commas, but they are all needed. The sentence contains a nonessential appositive phrase, which needs its own pair of commas: the director, writer, and lead actor of Hamilton.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, nonessential appositive phrases must be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

4. In this sentence, should a comma be placed after the underlined absolute phrase?

Poring over her textbooks Hermione finally found the recipe for Liquid Courage.

Answer: YesCorrect Explanation: That’s right! The absolute phrase, poring over her textbooks, modifies the entire independent clause and must be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, given the length and complexity of absolute phrases, writers always separate these phrases from the rest of the sentence to avoid confusion.

5. In this sentence, should a comma be used to separate the underlined participial phrase?

Hands resting on her hips Mrs. Weasley scolded her children for leaving home without permission.

Answer: YesCorrect Explanation: That’s right! In this sentence, the participial phrase, hands resting on her hips, modifies the subject, Mrs. Weasley, and acts as an introduction to the rest of the sentence. Therefore, it must be followed by a comma.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, participial phrases only have to be followed by a comma if used as an introduction to the independent clause. Otherwise, a comma is not needed.

6. In this sentence, should a comma be used to separate the underlined infinitive phrase?

To win Jumanji the characters must survive to the end of their quest.

Answer: YesCorrect Explanation: That’s right! Since the infinitive phrase, to win Jumanji is acting as an adverb, it must be separated from the independent clause by a comma.Incorrect Explanation: Sorry, that’s not right! Remember, if an infinitive phrase is being used as an adverb, it must be followed by a comma.

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Teacher’s Corner for Punctuating Phrases

Commas and phrases can both be intimidating subjects, and they are even more intimidating when students think about putting them together! However, the Common Core English Language Progressive Skills Chart shows that students should continue practicing these concepts to achieve true mastery.

For specific standards on the different ways to use commas in sentences, including using commas to punctuate phrases, check out the Common Core State Standards site.

chathamtownfc.net’s Punctuating Phrases Practice allows students to practice using commas with phrases until they reach mastery. When teachers wish to review student understanding of these topics, chathamtownfc.net provides pre-made assessments for this purpose.

Summary for Punctuating Phrases

Phrases can be divided into three main categories:

noun phrasesverb phrasesmodifying phrases.

An appositive phrase gives more information about or identifies a noun.

Non-essential appositive phrases are not necessary for understanding the sentence. They are set apart with commas.If the appositive phrase is essential, or absolutely necessary for understanding the sentence, then no commas are needed.

Gerund phrases are words that are typically categorized as verbs but are used as nouns instead. They include a verb ending in -ing, an object, and modifiers. As long as the subject or object that the phrase is replacing would not usually require a comma, then the gerund phrase does not need one either.

Verb phrases consist of the main verb and its auxiliaries, or helping verbs. Like gerund phrases, commas are not needed alongside verb phrases unless those verb phrases are written in a list.

Prepositional phrases only need to be separated from the rest of the sentence in two instances:

First, if prepositional phrases are acting as an introduction to the sentence, a comma must come after it.Secondly, since prepositional phrases are modifiers acting like adjectives or adverbs, if commas normally separate these modifiers, commas should be used to separate the prepositional phrases.

Participial phrases are made up of a present or past participle (a verb ending in -ing or -ed), an object, and any modifiers. Like appositive phrases, participial phrases are separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma only if the phrase is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Infinitive phrases are made up of an infinitive (the “to” form of a verb), an object, and any modifiers. Infinitive phrases can function as adjectives, adverbs, or nouns. A comma is only needed with these phrases when the infinitive phrase is used as an adverb at the beginning of the sentence.

Absolute phrases contain a noun, a participle, and any modifiers or objects, and they modify entire sentences instead of a single word. Given the length and complexity of absolute phrases, writers always separate them from the rest of the sentence to avoid confusion.

Be sure to check out our free grammar course for more punctuating phrases practice.

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