Hey, Look! A Post About Commas

For my first post of 2013, I thought I’d cover an issue that I mentioned back in 2011.  I’m brining it up again because it seems to cause a lot of confusion out there in author land. I say that because it’s one of the things that I often run across. It’s the issue of whether or not to place a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) separating two clauses. Of course, the answer is. . .it depends.
Here is the general rule: if both of the clauses separated by the conjunction are independent clauses, then you would include a comma before the conjunction.
See what I did there?
Conversely, if one of the clauses is a dependent clause, then you do not include the comma. Sorry. I couldn’t quickly come up with a way to write that last sentence with a dependent clause. Oh well.
Just in case anyone needs their memory jogged on the subject of independent and dependent clauses, here’s a little refresher. An independent clause is able to stand alone and would constitute a complete sentence containing both a subject and predicate, whereas a dependent clause would not constitute a complete sentence on its own. You could even go so far as to say that a dependent clause is, well, dependent on the other clause in the sentence.
There is actually a page in the Q & A section of the Chicago Manual of Style’s website that covers this question, and I think it is rather clever of them. I’ve included both the question and the answer below.
Q. I was always taught that one needs to put a subject after a comma and conjunction so that it joins two independent clauses. For example: “Sara picked a flower from the garden, and she smelled it.” So, per the rule, if there is no “she” in the second part of the sentence, it shouldn’t have a comma: “Sara picked a flower from the garden and smelled it.” I’ve seen that many publications ignore this rule. I’m wondering if this isn’t a real rule, or perhaps I misunderstood it? Thanks in advance.
A. It’s a real rule, and you’ve got it right, but please see CMOS 6.28–29 for exceptions.
Sorry. I know grammar humor is not for everyone. Frankly, it’s probably not for anyone.
So now, I’m guessing all of you are focusing on that annoying little word at the end of their answer.
What? You thought we were going to get off that easily? Oh, no. We are, after all, talking about the English language.
The primary exception to the rule that the CMOS is referring to is that you don’t have to use a comma when both independent clauses are really short and are closely connected.
The wine was lovely and the food was delicious.
If that seems a little on the subjective side, that’s because it is.
This is where I shrug my shoulders in your general direction. Sorry. I’m not the one coming up with the rules here.
Well, other than that last little bit of unpleasantness, I hope this will be helpful for a few of you out there in WG2E land.
See you next time!
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  1. Miriam Joy says:

    I get very annoyed when people underuse commas … but at the same time, I’m fairly sure I overuse them, so I can’t really talk.

    Would you (or someone) be able to do a post about colons? I constantly see capital letters being put AFTER colons which is something I was taught never to do: It just looks wrong. See? I think it might be an American thing, though, because it seems to be exclusively in American books, not British ones, where we have a lowercase letter after a colon. However, if someone could clear this up, that’d be very helpful :)

    • David Slegg says:

      Hi, Miriam.

      I’d be happy to do a post on colons. Thanks so much for the suggestion.

      Your saying that the writers you are reading are treating the colon as a full stop?

      That’s interesting. I haven’t come across that.

      I’m tucking that little nugget away in my cap for future posts.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      I was taught (American schools):

      If it’s a list composed of complete sentences, then capitalize (but it’s optional, depending – lol – i.e., be consistent), so (made up example):
      So much happened yesterday: Mary stopped by to see the baby; The television broke; My car stalled at the grocery store, after I bought frozen goods.
      But…if I were going to use “and” the option kicks in and I would use lower case for everything but “Mary”, so: Mary stopped by to see the baby; the television broke; and my car stalled at the grocery store.

      On the other hand, if it’s fragments, don’t capitalize, unless the first worst word should be capitalized, such as with an abbreviation or proper name, i.e.:
      At the grocery store, I got a lot of non-food items: paper towels; school paper; a ruler; and a can of oil for the car.

      For stacked lists, I’ve been told both ways, but typically, the older people (i.e., those of us who came out of Chicago, tend to follow the uppercase / lowercase depending on whether it’s a full sentence or a fragment, but when I was still working on my Masters (circa 2009), they were all APA people and the professors wanted uppercase exclusively, so:

      So much happened yesterday:
      – Mary stopped by to see the baby.
      – The television broke.
      – My car stalled at the grocery store, after I bought frozen goods.

      So — it depends — doesn’t that help. (lol) :-)

  2. PJ Sharon says:

    Always helpful to see these rules again. Thanks, Matt!

  3. I had to laugh when I read this column. Leaving out the comma before the conjunction joining two independent clauses was the primary error my copyeditor caught in my manuscript. I read the rule and examples three times during the course of my final edit before it thoroughly sunk in.

    • David Slegg says:

      Hi, Elise.

      Glade I could provide a chuckle.

      And I’m glad that it sunk in. All we can do is grow and get better in our writing. Wishing you much success!

  4. Gordon Kessler says:

    A woman without her man is nothing.

    Oops! Sorry ladies, that’s not what I meant!

    A woman: without her, man is nothing.

    My editing clients consist mainly of first-time novelists whose last attempt at writing a grammatically correct sentence was in high school. Since then, with texting and stream-of-conscious emailing, they’ve forgotten anything close to correct punctuation they might have learned.

    Within recent years, I think you’ll notice most novels are written in a more relaxed style, sometimes referred to as “open,” in which the old English Comp saw “when in doubt, leave it out” applies. In this open style, a comma is used only when a sentence would be confusing otherwise. Basically, this rule tells careful practitioners of proper English: “damn the CMS and MLA, I’ll do as I please!” So be thoughtful of your particular audience when you ignore the rules.

    This all said, as with spelling, you’ll also find some difference in American English and British English punctuation styles, such as with double and single quotes.

    There are other concerns like participial phrases vs. gerund phrases–and let’s not even mention the dreaded “Oxford comma”!

    In other words, the rules telling us to never be ambiguous … are ambiguous. How fun!

    • David Slegg says:

      You are soooo right, Gordon.

      And, no. You should not mention the dreaded Oxford comma. Why would you go there? We were already having a perfectly civil and unresolvable conversation about commas. Ha.

      Just kidding. Kind of. I think we have a better chance of settling the Israeli Palestine conflict than the Oxford comma conflict in our lifetime. Just saying.

  5. Jim Guigli says:

    I rely on several books to stay “correct’. Of course, I still make mistakes.

    My favorite book on punctuation is, punc-tu-a-tion for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough.

    Besides grammatical correctness, Harvey talks about how sentences sound with different punctuation, and how they look on a printed page. Whether or not you put a space before and after an EM-dash may not affect how you see a sentence on an ebook, but it does have an effect in left-justified print. Many readers prefer print over electronic because they like the way a book looks.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. The importance of punctuation was demonstrated to me recently on twitter: “I was so hungry I ate both my pizza and my kids.” Yep, a well-placed apostrophe would have made all the difference.

  7. Nikki Fine says:

    The general rule regarding commas as taught in English schools is: after each item in a list but not before ‘and’. Unless of course it is for clarification. Good old Oxford comma! ;-)