Most of the time, the comma of Spanish is used much like the comma in English. However, there are some differences, particularly in numbers and in comments that are inserted within sentences.
Following are the most common uses for the comma, known as la coma, in Spanish. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. Correct usage of the comma can become a complex matter, but this should cover the most common situations you're likely to encounter:
To separate the items in a series: Unlike in English, where a comma can be used before the final item in a series depending on the style of the publication, a comma is not used before the final item of a series when it follows the conjunction e, o, ni, u or y.
- El libro explicaba de una forma concisa, sencilla y profunda la crisis financiera. The book explained the financial crisis in a concise, simple and profound way. (In English, a comma could optionally be added after "simple.")
- Mezcle bien con las papas, los huevos y las remolachas. Mix well with the potatoes, eggs, and beets.
- ¿Quieres tres, dos o una? Do you want three, two or one?
To learn how to separate items in a series when one or more of the items has a comma in it, see the lesson on semicolons.
To indicate apposition or to set off nonlimiting explanatory phrases: The rule on explanatory phrases is much the same as it is in English. If a phrase is used to explain what something is like, it is set off by commas. If it is used to define which something is being referred to, it is not. For example, in the sentence "El coche que estás en el garaje es rojo" (The car that is in the garage is red), commas are not needed because the explanatory phrase (que está en el garaje/that is in the garage) is telling the reader which car is being discussed. But punctuated differently, the sentence "el coche, que está en el garaje, es rojo" (the car, which is in the garage, is red) uses the phrase not to tell the reader which car is being discussed, but to describe where it is. It might help you to remember that in most of these types of sentences, the comma is associated with a pause in the sentence.
Apposition is punctuated much as it is in English, as in the first three sample sentences below.
- Amo a mi hermano, Roberto. I love my brother, Roberto. (I have one brother, and he is named Roberto.)
- Amo a mi hermano Roberto. I love my brother Roberto. (I have more than one brother, and I love Roberto.)
- Conozco a Julio Iglesias, cantante famoso. I know Julio Iglesias, the famous singer.
- Lucas, gerente del mercado, tiene 36 años. Lucas, the market's manager, is 36 years old.
- El CD de escritorio, más comúnmente llamado el live CD, permite probar Ubuntu. The desktop CD, more commonly called the live CD, allows the testing of Ubuntu.
- Luego, en la década de 1980, actuó en la comedia popular. Later, in the 1980s, he acted in the popular comedy.
To set off quotations or similar comments: Note that when quotation marks are used, the comma goes outside the quotation marks, unlike in American English.
- "Los familiares no comprendieron la ley", aclaró el abogado. "The family members did not understand the law," the lawyer clarified.
- "Muchos no saben distinguir las dos cosas", dijo Álvarez. Many do not know how to distinguish the two things, Alvarez said.
To set off exclamations that are inserted within a sentence. In English, the equivalent would normally be accomplished with long dashes. El nuevo presidente, ¡no lo creo!, es natural de Nueva York. The new president — I can't believe it — is a native of New York.
To precede conjunctions that mean "except": These words are excepto, salvo and menos:
- Nada hay que temer, excepto el miedo. There is nothing to fear except fear.
- Recibí felicitaciones de todos, salvo de mi jefe. I was congratulated by everyone except for my boss.
- Fueron aceptados por todas las autoridades, excepto el vice presidente. The were accepted by all the authorities, except the vice president.
To separate adverbs or adverbial phrases that affect the meaning of the entire sentence from the rest of the sentence: Such words and phrases often come at the beginning of a sentence, although they can also be inserted.
- Por supuesto, no puedo comprenderlo. Of course, I can't understand it.
- Por lo contrario, la realidad argentina no difiere de la dominicana. To the contrary, the Argentine reality doesn't differ from the Dominican reality.
- Naturalmente, gana mucho dinero. Naturally, he earns a lot of money. (Without the comma, the Spanish sentence would become the equivalent of "He naturally earns a lot of money," so that naturalmente would describe just the word gana rather than the entire sentence.)
- Sin embargo, pienso que eres muy talentosa. Nevertheless, I think you're very talented.
- El tráfico de bebés, desgraciadamente, es una realidad. The trafficking of babies, unfortunately, is a reality.
After verb complements and adverbial phrases that precede the main verb of a sentence: This rule can best be shown by example and is similar to that of English. Note the difference in punctuation between "Si vas a casa, no comes" (If you go home, don't eat) and "No comes si vas a casa" (Don't eat if you go home). However, sometimes the comma can be omitted, particularly if the sentence is short.
- Durante los 14 primeros años de su vida, fue conocida como María. During the first 14 years of her life, she was known as Maria.
- En química, el átomo es la unidad más pequeña de un elemento químico. In chemistry, the atom is the smallest unit of a chemical element.