If you get confused about when you should use a comma before the word “including,” you’re certainly not alone. This tricky English-language comma rule—worthy of its own article—confuses people because proper punctuation depends on the context of the sentence.
Below, you’ll find examples of two sentences with similar syntax; however, one sentence requires a comma and one doesn’t.
Mammals including bears and rabbits have fur.
Mammals, including dolphins and humans, are warm-blooded.
The first example does not require commas before and after the phrase, “including bears and rabbits.” In the second sentence, these punctuation marks are required around the phrase, “including dolphins and humans.”
In two nearly identical sentences, why does the punctuation differ? To answer that, you need to think about the content of the examples. Whereas all mammals are warm-blooded, only some mammals have fur. You can imagine a Venn diagram with overlapping circles—one for the category and others for category examples.
With the word “including,” you’re introducing examples. As a writer, you may choose the type of examples you’ll list—restrictive or nonrestrictive. Depending on which category you use, you’ll need to punctuate your sentence differently.
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A nonrestrictive, or nonessential, clause could easily be removed without changing the meaning of an independent clause or sentence. Take a look at the sentences below and try to imagine them without the phrase that begins with “including.”
I love tea, including oolong.
My furniture, including the couch, table, and bookshelf, fits in the new apartment.
My favorite cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Honolulu, all have diverse populations.
All of the following sentences still make sense, even with the clauses removed:
I love tea.
My furniture fits in the new apartment.
My favorite cities all have diverse populations.
The nonessential examples act as a descriptive phrase or appositive, providing more information about the noun that precedes them. Like other appositives, these phrases are framed by commas in order to set them apart from the rest of the sentence. A nonessential clause could also be written as a parenthetical or placed between em dashes.
I love tea (including oolong).
I love tea—including oolong.
The choice between an em dash, parentheses, or a comma becomes a stylistic decision—all three forms of punctuation serve the same purpose in this context. Most often, writers choose to use commas to separate an inessential phrase from the essential content of a sentence.
A Restrictive Clause
In contrast to the examples above, sometimes the phrase does provide information necessary to the meaning of the sentence. Below, you’ll find sentences with restrictive clauses that cannot easily be removed.
I turned in the paperwork including the signature page.
In this typeface, punctuation marks including semicolons, quotation marks, and commas are written with the same little squiggle.
The proposal including a new city park won more votes.
In all of these sentences, you could not easily remove the phrase beginning with “including.” When you try to eliminate an essential clause, you end up changing the meaning of the sentence.
I turned in the paperwork.
In this typeface, punctuation marks are written with the same little squiggle.
The proposal won more votes.
Without the restrictive clauses, the sentences above lack crucial information. Take the last item, for example. The sentence, “The proposal won more votes,” leaves out crucial information needed to describe the proposal that won. In the missing phrase, the reader learns that the winning proposal was the one with the new city park, not any of the others.
Ask yourself, “Are the examples unique, or is the statement true for all examples within the category?”
Ultimately, it does not matter whether the restrictive clause appears at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle of a sentence, or at the end of a sentence; regardless of placement, if a descriptive clause changes the meaning of a sentence, never use commas to set the phrase apart.
Other Appositive Phrases
A number of other phrases can introduce a comparison, functioning in the same role as the word “including.”
in other words
as well as
Like “including,” these phrases may introduce either a restrictive or a nonrestrictive clause. When they introduce an essential description necessary to the meaning of the sentence, the writer should not set the description apart with commas. On the other hand, if these phrases begin an inessential description, commas must be used.
In cases where the sentence could be interpreted in two different ways, the writer may use punctuation to alert the reader to his or her intended meaning. Comma usage suggests that the examples are some of many. Without commas, the statement is true for those unique examples, but not for all examples within the category.
Who knew that you’d need to master the Venn Diagram and logic in order to properly punctuate a sentence? Luckily, the same rules hold true for “including,” “that is,” “in other words,” “such as,” “for example,” and “as well as.”
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.