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Academic Coaching & Writing

III. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: The Power of Commas

Dec 29, 2014 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

The story is told of an ambitious young scholar who dedicated her dissertation to the three greatest influences on her life. Unfortunately, an editor unfamiliar with APA Style removed a serial comma—which is how her thesis came to be dedicated to “Ayn Rand, my mother and God.”

Commas are little things, but (as the apocryphal anecdote illustrates), they can be vital in clarifying the relationship between parts of a sentence. A comma can define a list of items, create a pause in a sentence, or tell you where to breathe, but its primary purpose is to make your meaning clear to the reader and prevent misreading.

Some aspects of comma usage are observed more strictly in academic writing than in everyday usage, primarily because these conventions are thought to help authors achieve the goal of precisely communicating technical information. What follows is a summary of the uses of the comma (and its cousin, the semicolon) in APA Style. Note that these are not the only possible correct uses of these punctuation marks; they are merely the ones that authors most frequently have trouble with.

Think of the comma as a break in the rhythm of your sentence that keeps ideas distinct. Use a comma

  • to set off items in a list of three or more things.
Correct Incorrect
Ayn Rand, my mother, and God Ayn Rand, my mother and God
apples, pears, and peaches apples, pears and peaches
by Dewey, Bundy, and Howe (2006) by Dewey, Bundy and Howe (2006)


  • to set off a clause that adds information to a sentence but if removed would leave the structure and meaning of the sentence intact.
    • Thirty additional participants, recruited in the same way, provided pilot rating values.
  • to set off two independent clauses (i.e., clauses that can each stand by themselves as a simple sentence) joined by a conjunction.
    • The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
    • The cages were lined with cedar chips, and a separate water supply was provided for each hamster.
  • to set off the year in exact dates and parenthetical citations.
    • August 25, 2009, was the date of the letter.
    • (Brinkley, 2013, found . . .)
  • to separate groups of three digits in numbers of four or more digits (with a few exceptions; see APA Publication Manual, 4.37).

The semicolon functions in a way very similar to the comma; however, it signals a more definite break between elements of a sentence. The semicolon is used when the pause created by a comma would not be distinct enough.

Use a semicolon

  • to set off a series of elements that already contains commas.
    • Participants were allowed to select a red, white, and blue flag; a stocking filled with red and white candy; or a pair of red, white, and blue suspenders.
    • (Brinkley, 2009; Parsel & Ransom, 2011)
  • to set off two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction.
    • The prisoner shifted uncomfortably in his chair; sweat began to bead his brow.
    • The cages were lined with cedar chips; a separate water supply was provided for each hamster.

Practice using commas and semicolons this week, and next week you’ll learn about using abbreviations and acronyms. Let us know what questions you have about APA Style so we can address them in future blogs.

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