Which of the following is correct or best?

  • Please separate each word with a comma.
  • Please separate each word by a comma.
  • Please separate words with a comma.
  • Please separate words by a comma.

This is for a form field description where the expected user input would be

this, is, what, we, expect

Or does anyone have a better suggestion?

  • Please separate words, using commas?
    – Tim
    Feb 28 '17 at 11:15
  • 1
    The first one sounds the most clear and natural to me.
    – Artemisia
    Feb 28 '17 at 11:20
  • 1
    @Artemisia Yes, I agree. The first is the only one that, in my view, makes your uncommon request quite clear. Also "by" does not seem to work as well as "with" in this particular context.
    – WS2
    Feb 28 '17 at 11:40
  • 1
    None of them are really correct; Please put commas between successive words is what it means. The last word has no comma, and that's not an obvious consequence of "separating words". Feb 28 '17 at 15:42
  • I think the question has to do with the logic of separating one thing. I often think about that when a telephone hold message asserts that my call will answered in the order in which it was received: is a single thing really in an order?
    – Chaim
    Feb 28 '17 at 15:58

I agree with John Lawler that depending on the verb separate to convey the meaning you have in mind is not the way to go in this case. He recommends using this wording instead:

Please put commas between successive words.

That works, but I would probably use this wording instead:

Please add a comma after each word except the last [in the series].

His approach emphasizes that the defining feature of the instruction is to avoid having any two words appear consecutively without an intervening comma. Mine emphasizes that the defining feature of the instruction is to ensure that every word in the series except the last one has a trailing comma.


The third and fourth are incorrect as you do not separate words with 'a comma (singular) but with commas. The second sounds incorrect though I would not be able to justify why it is so. I agree with Artemisia that the first sounds the most natural.

  • So I understand that "with" seems to work better than "by". Sounds true also for the singular/plural although if a user would enter 2 words, there would only be one comma... What about: Please separate words with commas? For some reason (but English is not my mothertongue) the first example doesn't feel correct to me...
    – MrUpsidown
    Feb 28 '17 at 12:02

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