Comma Before “When”? (Helpful Examples)

Knowing how to use commas properly in English can be a tricky business. This page provides examples and answers the commonly asked question of “when to place a comma before “when?”

Comma Before “When”?

If “when” appears in the middle of a sentence, you should place a comma before it if the previous clause is an independent clause that contains a subject. You should also place a comma before “when” if “when” provides additional information with a non-defining relative clause.

comma before when

There are many sentences for which you do not need to use a comma before “when.”

For example, when it forms a part of the first clause or when the first clause is not independent, i.e. you require the word “when” for the sentence to make sense, then you would not use a comma.

As shown in these examples:

  • I ran away as fast as I could when I saw him.
  • I remember when I used to go to the beach with my grandparents.
  • She didn’t say when she would be coming back.

In contrast, when the word “when” does not form part of the first independent clause or when it is the first word of a dependent clause, it is not required for the first clause to make sense, so you can use a comma to separate the two clauses.

 It is not always necessary to do so, and you can often choose between both options depending on which sounds better.

As shown in these examples:

  • He was born in the 1950s, when people started emigrating to the UK from the Caribbean.
  • His football career was interrupted by a leg injury, when in 1992, he suffered a broken leg.
  • After the dinner had finished, when everyone had left, John asked Mary to marry him.
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When to Use a Comma Before “When”

The times when you can and should use a comma before the word “when” are when it is not required for the first independent clause to make sense or when it forms part of a non-defining relative clause.

You shouldn’t use a comma if the word “when” forms part of the first independent clause.

As shown in these examples with no comma:

  • I was lying in the garden when I heard a loud crash on the road outside.
  • If you had left when we told you, you wouldn’t have missed the bus.
  • This morning was when she noticed they had been robbed.

And these examples with commas:

  • In 1981, when I was born, the Soviet Union still existed.
  • In 1963, when JFK was assassinated, television was only becoming a common feature in households.
  • Years ago, when I was young and fit, I used to go running every night.
  • Hannah hadn’t spoken to David all week after they argued, when suddenly he turned up on Friday as though nothing had happened.

When to Not Use a Comma Before “When”

You should not use a comma before the word “when” if it forms part of the first independent clause or is required for the sentence to make sense.

As shown in these examples:

  • I don’t know when I will be back, so don’t wait up for me.
  • He called to ask when the shop opened, and they told him they had closed for good.
  • She said she was fine when I spoke to her on the phone.

Is It Ever Correct to Use a Comma After “When”?

It is not standard to place a comma directly after the word “when” unless there are other words in the clause to form a dependent clause.

For example, you should use a comma when a sentence begins with the word “when” and a dependent clause.

As shown in these examples:

  • When I arrived at the venue, the party was completely empty.
  • When I was a young boy, there was much less crime in this area.

Final Thoughts

A comma should be placed before the word “when” in relative clauses and when it does not form part of the first main subject clause. If the word “when” is required for the sentence to have meaning, you shouldn’t use a comma.