Is There a Comma Before “Except”?

The English language is a complex system of rules and exceptions, and punctuation is no different. One such punctuation quandary involves the use of commas with the word “except”. In fact, the placement of a comma before “except” can drastically change the meaning or flow of a sentence.

Understanding “Except”

“Except” is a preposition that is typically used to introduce a clause or phrase specifying an exclusion or exception. It means "not including" or "excluding". For instance, in the sentence “I like all fruits except apples,” the word “except” is used to exclude apples from the general liking for all fruits.

In addition to being a preposition, “except” can also serve as a conjunction, similar to “but”. For instance, in the sentence “I would go to the party, except I have to work,” “except” is used as a conjunction to connect two clauses.

General Rules for Comma Usage with “Except”

The use of commas with “except” depends largely on the structure and meaning of the sentence. As a general rule, a comma is used before “except” when it introduces a nonrestrictive clause. A nonrestrictive clause is a clause that can be removed from the sentence without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.

On the other hand, no comma is used before “except” when it introduces a restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and removing it would change the sentence's meaning.

Examples in Context

Understanding the use of commas with “except” is easier when looked at in context.

Without a Comma

Sentence Explanation Is this correct?
She likes all fruits except apples. "Except apples" is a restrictive clause necessary to the meaning of the sentence. Yes
Nobody except John knew the answer. "Except John" is essential to understanding who knew the answer. Yes
Everyone went to the party except Mary. "Except Mary" is crucial to understanding who did not go to the party. Yes

With a Comma

Sentence Explanation Is this correct?
I would have gone to the party, except I had to work. "Except I had to work" is a nonrestrictive clause providing additional information. Yes
She likes all fruits, except for apples. "Except for apples" is a nonrestrictive clause providing additional information. Yes
He was ready to leave, except his car wouldn't start. "Except his car wouldn't start" adds further information. Yes

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

One common mistake is using a comma before “except” when it is not needed. This usually happens when “except” introduces a restrictive clause. Remember, if the information after “except” is essential to the sentence, do not use a comma.

Another mistake is not using a comma when it is needed. This typically happens when “except” introduces a nonrestrictive clause. If the information after “except” adds extra information but is not crucial to the sentence, use a comma.

Comparing “Except” with Other Similar Terms

While “except” and “besides” may seem similar, they cannot be used interchangeably. “Besides” means "in addition to" and it often requires a comma. On the other hand, “except” means "excluding" and may or may not need a comma, depending on the sentence.

Quick Recap and Key Takeaways

Understanding the use of commas with “except” is crucial in writing clear and grammatically correct sentences. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Use a comma before “except” when it introduces a nonrestrictive clause.
  • Do not use a comma before “except” when it introduces a restrictive clause.
  • Avoid using a comma before “except” when it isn't needed and vice versa.
  • “Except” and “besides” cannot be used interchangeably.

Remember these rules and guidelines to ensure your sentences are clear and your meaning is understood as intended.

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