Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
The topic of coordinating conjunctions and commas is on my mind because I just finished the most recent novel from a series that I love, a novel filled with superfluous commas.
Good author, great characters, engaging plot. I wanted to forget the world for a couple of hours and solve the mystery, put myself in the lead character’s shoes and become the wise and successful detective.
Hmm . . . I did say good author, great characters, and engaging plot, right?
Did I also say too many commas?
The excessive comma usage was so obvious that I became annoyed while I was reading. And I don’t want to be annoyed when I read. Not with the author. Instead, I want to enjoy the story. I want to believe the fiction, not get dragged into reality every fourth page (or two or three times on successive pages).
I promise you I’m not overly picky when I read for enjoyment. But when the errors are both glaring and numerous, I find it hard to turn off my editor side and re-engage my reader side. Let me enjoy the story, I say to the book, and stop throwing the mechanics in my face.
Lest you think I’m making much ado about nothing and that your readers don’t even see such things, keep in mind that many readers read punctuation as easily as they do words. Each mark means something to them. And they do notice extra marks or the absence of punctuation.
Imagine the problems if I stuck a period in the middle of sentences. where no period was necessary. You’d be confused at first. and maybe a bit irritated. Maybe you’d think. something was wrong with the printer. or that you needed to clean your glasses. But whatever the cause. you’d be repeatedly pulled from the fiction.
What if a writer dropped in the word zoo a couple of times instead of the periods? Wouldn’t readers have trouble following the story? I know I would.
You, as writer, want to keep your readers engaged in the fiction. One way is to use punctuation correctly.
So . . .
This is a simple post to remind writers when and when not to use commas with coordinating conjunctions. This reminder of the rules is not meant to prevent writers from exercising creativity for effect; it’s an encouragement to write with clarity and simplicity.
Need a quick review of the coordinating conjunctions? They’re the FANBOYS words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
They’re used to connect words and phrases and clauses. (Remember Conjunction Junction from the Schoolhouse Rock folks? If not, you might want to check out the cartoon on YouTube. A dated presentation but still fun.)
Examples of sentences with coordinating conjunctions—
I love cookies and milk
Tommy loves cookies but hates me.
I love the cookies Tommy loves, yet he never shares with me.
There are three instances when commas go before coordinating conjunctions—
1. To separate independent clauses, as in the third example above. That is, when two independent clauses (each can stand alone as a complete sentence) are joined with a coordinating conjunction, a comma is required before the conjunction. Without the comma, the sentence is known as a run-on sentence. (Independent clauses separated by a comma but without a conjunction are known as a comma splice.)
Elmer snorted his coffee across the table, so Tobey spewed his beer on the rest of us. Correct
Elmer snorted his coffee across the table so Tobey spewed his beer on the rest of us. Incorrect—a run-on sentence
Elmer snorted his coffee across the table, Tobey spewed his beer on the rest of us. Incorrect—a comma splice
2. When using the serial (or Oxford) comma in a list of three or more items.
She wanted hope, peace, joy, and love.
Morris claimed he’d lost the bet, lost the girl, and lost his mind.
Note: Use of the serial comma (the final comma in the series and the one before the conjunction) is a matter of the writer’s personal taste or may be a requirement of the style guide a publisher uses. Not all writers use the final comma before the conjunction.
3. To eliminate confusion or the misreading of a sentence, even if a comma would not normally be called for.
He intended to drench his pancakes in syrup, and butter his toast.
A comma is not used before a coordinating conjunction when the conjunction joins two words or phrases or two clauses that are not independent clauses. An overuse of commas in these situations may confuse or irritate readers, making them aware of the foundations of the story rather than keeping them involved with the story itself.
Commas are not required in these examples—
Tom and Jane looked for red apples and fragrant oranges.
Tom and Jane looked for red apples and found fragrant oranges instead.
Southern Pickering County is a home to alligators and a haven for tax evaders.
Southern Pickering County is a home to alligators and provides a haven for tax evaders.
My brother planned to go to trade school or rob banks; you could say he hadn’t yet declared his major.
Lisa swallowed a bug or choked on a sesame seed.
Happy and hopeful, Agnes pedaled up the hill yet never broke a sweat.
The temperatures were cold but not frigid on our last night in Alaska.
Comma use is incorrect in the following sentences—
Tom and Jane looked for red apples, and fragrant oranges. X
Southern Pickering County is a home to alligators, and provides a haven for tax evaders. X
Lisa swallowed a bug, or choked on a sesame seed. X
Happy and hopeful, Agnes pedaled up the hill, yet never broke a sweat. X
The following examples do require a comma because two independent clauses are joined by the conjunction—
Tom and Jane looked for red apples, yet they found fragrant oranges instead.
Southern Pickering County is a home to alligators, and it provides a haven for tax evaders.
Happy and hopeful, Agnes pedaled up the hill, yet she never broke a sweat.
I most often find the added commas in sentences with or and yet. But or and yet are simply coordinating conjunctions, just as but and and are.
This has been a quick lesson but an important reminder: The smallest oddities in grammar or word choice or punctuation can destroy the aura of make-believe for your reader. They can serve as a slap, a startling slap that awakens the reader from the delights of your fictional world. Do whatever you can to maintain the fiction, even if that something is as simple as keeping commas in their proper place.