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Essential Comma Rules for Business Emails

Updated on May 20, 2019Grammar

Let there be no mistake—the comma wields a power far greater than its humble looks might suggest. The punctuation mark is used by many writers as a soft pause to separate words, items, or clauses and can change a sentence’s meaning or tone, depending on how it’s used.

Learning the comma rules for business emails ensures you’re setting the right tone when you’re writing to your boss or an investor—or to anyone else who has an impact on your business—and can eliminate miscommunication. Misplaced commas have also been the centerpiece of some court rulings that have cost businesses millions of dollars.

In this piece, we’ll discuss where to place commas in email salutations, how to use them in business communication, their historical significance, and when to use semicolons instead of commas in emails.

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What is comma usage in business communication?

Comma usage in business communication impacts a sentence’s tone or meaning, so proper usage is vital to avoid miscommunication and set clear objectives with your team. Use commas in between a greeting and someone’s name, in between items in a list, or when connecting two independent clauses.

Misplaced commas can also change a sentence’s meaning and in some cases can cost people millions of dollars. In 1872, US lawmakers placed a comma in between “fruits” and “vegetables,” which resulted in tropical produce being imported into the country at no charge, costing taxpayers $2 million at the time (more than $40 million in today’s money).

The comma in communication

One of the most famous examples of how commas can affect communication is the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma.” While this hypothetical statement clearly illustrates how a soft pause can change a sentence’s meaning, there are also real-life examples that illustrate the effect.

The most famous example comes from the Oracle of Delphi:

“You will go you will return never in the battle you will perish.”

This phrase is supposed to be an answer to the question of whether or not to go to war. If you place a comma before “never,” it insinuates that a person will return after the war and should head to battle.

Place the comma after “never,” and the sentence insinuates that the person will not return from the war.

Similarly, the use or omission of an Oxford comma, sometimes called a serial comma, can change how a sentence is read. An Oxford comma is placed after the second-to-last item in a list and before the coordinating conjunction—usually and or or—that precedes the final item.

Different style guides have different rules on whether to use them. That said, the lack of an Oxford comma was once the centerpiece of a US Court of Appeals ruling that resulted in a Maine dairy company losing $5 million.

The court case, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, came down to a sentence in a state law that stated which job duties were exempt from overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

The court ruled that the omission of a comma between “shipment” and the coordinating conjunction “or” made it unclear whether shipment and distribution were one activity or two. If the state law placed an Oxford comma before or, it would’ve been clear that shipment and distribution of dairy were exempt from overtime pay.

Greetings in business emails

A business email starts with a salutation, and a salutation ends with a comma, right? Wrong. In business emails, the most formal way of ending a salutation is with a colon. So instead of “Dear Mrs. Johnson,” you should write “Dear Mrs. Johnson:” and then continue with the body of the message.

Using a comma at the end of the salutation might not be a faux pas if you have a casual relationship with the person you’re writing. You might write a business email where the utmost formality is not necessary, and in that case, the colon is not required. If you’re unsure, play it safe and practice business email etiquette by ending with a colon.

Openers and names: comma use

A salutation usually has two components: a greeting or an adjective and the name or title of the person you’re addressing.

In the previous example, the salutation is composed of an adjective and a name, and there’s no comma between the two. However, a comma should separate a direct greeting and a person’s name. So if you were to write “Good morning, Mrs. Johnson,” you’d have to place a comma between “Good morning” and “Mrs. Johnson.”

Commas with coordinating conjunctions

The most common coordinating conjunctions are and, or, nor, so, but, yet, and for. We use them to connect elements in a sentence that are grammatically similar, such as two verbs, two nouns, two modifiers, or two independent clauses. A conjunction can be used to start a sentence, in which case it usually shouldn’t be followed by a comma:

Example: But in the last quarter of this year, we’ve seen an increase in consumer activity.

If a coordinating conjunction is placed in a list of two items, there’s no need to use a comma before it:

Example: The departments that had most of the activity were toy stores and gift shops.

If, on the other hand, the conjunction is used before the final element in a list of more than two items, a comma may go immediately before it:

Example: Toys, plastic Christmas trees, and spirits went out of stock.

If a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses, put a comma before it:

Example: The suppliers were contacted immediately, so we were able to restock the missing items in time.

When to use semicolons instead of commas

A comma and coordinating conjunction aren’t always the best way to join two independent clauses. In fact, it can cause confusion, and that’s something you want to avoid in a business email.

If you have two independent clauses that each contain a few commas, you should use a semicolon instead of a comma to separate them. For example, your first independent clause might contain an introductory element followed by a comma, and your second independent clause might have a nonessential element that’s between two commas:

Example: In the meantime, the consumers were encouraged to look around other departments; and that’s what, it turned out, led to a small increase in sales of nonseasonal items.

In this case, the coordinating conjunction should have a semicolon in front of it.

Semicolons, commas, and dashes are often interchanged. However, dashes should only be used as a stylistic tool or to offset an appositive, which is a noun or noun phrase that follows another noun to provide more information about the person, place, or thing.

Advanced tips for comma usage

Comma usage isn’t always black and white. For example, while commas are typically used to connect two independent clauses, they should be avoided if the words on either side of the comma can form their own sentence.

Incorrect: “John is ordering pizza, Evelyn is ordering ramen.”

The above example is called a comma splice, and there are three ways to make it grammatically correct.

Add a coordinating conjunction: “John is ordering pizza, and Evelyn is ordering ramen.”

Use a semicolon: “John is ordering pizza; Evelyn is ordering ramen.”

Form two separate sentences: “John is ordering pizza. Evelyn is ordering ramen.”

Comma usage also varies based on the type of modifier you use. Restrictive modifiers, or words that identify or limit the noun they’re modifying, do not require a comma, whereas nonrestrictive modifiers, or words that are not essential to the sentence’s meaning, require a comma.

Restrictive modifier: Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

Nonrestrictive modifier: Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, was the first man on the moon.

Comma rules in business communication FAQs

Is it ever acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in business emails?

Starting a sentence with a conjunction is grammatically correct, but some people prefer not to have one at the beginning of a sentence. If you want to use a formal tone, it’s better not to use conjunctions at the start of a sentence. However, more casual conversations can use them.

Should you use a comma or a semicolon in complex sentences?

Use commas in complex sentences that are linked by a conjunction, such as and, but, or or. Semicolons should be used in complex sentences connected by a conjunctive adverb, like however.

Can improper comma usage in business emails lead to misunderstandings?

Yes, improper comma usage can lead to misunderstandings. A comma represents a soft pause, and the placement of that pause can impact the tone or meaning of your sentence.

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