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No Comma Necessary—Coordinating Conjunctions Don’t Always Need Commas

February 26, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 27, 2011

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.

***

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45 Responses to “No Comma Necessary—Coordinating Conjunctions Don’t Always Need Commas”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Or the flip side: your publisher says that ‘people using e-readers with small screens don’t want commas taking up space’ and cites that the CMS is for “formal” writing and the ‘rules’ don’t matter in commercial fiction. Drives me nuts. I need those commas where the belong to make the sentence work for me. One of my former editors actually said, “If I see a comma before ‘and’ I’ll delete it.” I think she meant the comma before ‘and’ in the last item of a list, but she really went to town deleting commas I think should have been in there.

    (Now that there are so many dedicated e-readers with book-sized screens, maybe it’s not such an issue, but this was in the pre-Kindle days.)

    I just remember Mr. Holtby in 10th grade English saying “comma and, comma but comma for” if they’re independent clauses.

    Right now my CP and I are going back and forth on usage of “then.” Mary finished lunch, then did the dishes” vs. “Mary finished lunch and then did the dishes.”

  2. Hi, Terry. The rules don’t matter in commercial fiction? If that were true, we’d certainly have a much harder time communicating with our readers. I can see why such advice would drive you nuts.

    I do understand that rules can be broken for effect and that language and rules are fluid over time. Commas taking up too much space? The use of e-readers may change some of our existing practices; newspapers don’t use the serial comma because of the space issue.

    But communication and clarity and meaning are important. If the reader doesn’t understand, we’ve accomplished nothing.

    I find that both your then sentences work. Now, if you’d said, “Mary finished lunch, then she did the dishes,” we’d be talking something different. This would be a comma splice because we’re using a comma alone to separate two independent clauses. Then is not a coordinating conjunction, so the missing and is important here.

    I will admit, however, that I’d not be as picky about this comma splice as I would be with others because this construction, with then, is often accepted.

    Also, if you’d omitted both the comma and the and—Mary finished lunch then did the dishes—I’d suggest adding one or the other back in. Then is a word that can join, but it’s still not a coordinating conjunction. There are limits to what it can do on its own.

  3. Terry, I also meant to say thank you for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I enjoy reading what other writers and editors have to say.

  4. Gina says:

    I am horrid with commas! My mind has a hard time grasping the concepts, yet I keep trying to figure them out!
    Thank you for blogging about it, for I know I’m not the only writer out there who struggles with them.

  5. Gina, commas seem to be the one problem punctuation for almost everyone. Maybe it’s because there are so many opportunities to use them.

    You’re definitely not alone.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  6. Like most folks, it’s the permutations of comma usage that makes me sweat. You’ve done a great job here giving us help with some of the finer points (and you’ve done it in such an easy-going way, it hardly feels like we’re discussing punctuation).
    Right now I find myself getting confounded by “as” (“Generally there’s no need to do that as you can assume it’s been taken care of.”). In longer examples of such sentences you can “hear” a pause before the “as,” but it’s not a coordinating conjunction. Is it functioning like a “because” (subordinating) and thus wont take a comma? It makes my head spin.
    I love that you do this for all of us, btw. It’s not easy to write as clearly as you do about this stuff. Thank you!

  7. Heather, you’re right about as and because and since being common subordinating conjunctions. And when a dependent clause, introduced by the subordinating conjunction, comes after the independent clause, there is no comma.

    I find that writers want to put commas before as a lot. I think there’s just something about the word that cries out for a comma. But if the line doesn’t need one, why clutter it with unnecessary punctuation?

    I’m glad you find the articles helpful. I enjoy writing them.

  8. Hi Beth,

    I’m overthinking independent clauses at the moment. Would you say commas are necessary in sentences like these:
    –He thought he was over the pain, but all this was bringing it back.
    –Right now, he’s hiding behind anger, but that anger won’t last.
    –That made sense, but all he could see was her face.

    I guess my issue has to do with whether pronouns ‘this’ and ‘that’ turn them into dependant clauses …

    Thanks for your time!
    Rachel

  9. Hi, Rachel. Yes for commas in all three sentences. You’re joining independent clauses with the conjunction but. Pronouns (in this case, demonstrative pronouns) serve as subjects just as easily as nouns do, so they can be a part of an independent clause just as any noun is. The easiest way of determining whether a comma is needed is to look at both parts of the sentence that’s separted by the coordinating conjunction. If each can stand alone as a full sentence, use a comma with the coordinating conjunction. (Or use no coordinating conjunction and use a semicolon in place of the comma.)

    In your second sentence, anger is actually the noun in the second clause. (You also don’t need a comma after right now in that second sentence.)

    I understand the overthinking thing. Sometimes you get so caught up that you don’t know what you’re looking at any more. I hope this helps.

  10. Colin says:

    Hi, my question is:

    If a sentence has a coordinating conjunction before a subordinating conjunction, is there a need to add a comma after the subordinate clause?

    Example: I was going to read more of the book, but while I was sitting there, I fell asleep.

    Is the comma necessary after “there”, or can it just be “but while I was sitting there I fell asleep”?

    Thanks

  11. Colin, do include the comma after there. You’ve still got a dependent clause followed by an independent one. Could you choose to skip the comma as a style choice? Maybe, but that’s a stretch. You’d be safe to use the comma.

    That combination of coordinating conjunction with subordinating conjunction could be tricky, but we use them all the time. I can’t find the practice addressed in any grammar source, online or book, except for a brief mention in the Chicago Manual of Style that advises not putting a comma between the two conjunctions.

    Let me suggest, however, that you don’t necessarily need the first comma. The trend today is for using as few punctuation marks as possible, and that first comma isn’t strictly necessary. Again, I can’t quote you a definitive source for this one (and the same CMOS section I mentioned earlier shows an example that does include the first comma) yet because the dependent clause comes between the two independent clauses, you can argue that the first comma is unnecessary. Consider the following examples—

    #1 Phil wanted strawberry pie, and because he was the star, he got it.

    #2 Phil wanted strawberry pie and because he was the star, he got it.

    #3 Phil wanted strawberry pie and, because he was the star, he got it.

    #4 Phil wanted strawberry pie, and, because he was the star, he got it.

    The first is in the same form as your sentence and is commonly used, yet the second is acceptable and, in my opinion, preferable. The third and fourth examples show why the second, with no comma after pie, is acceptable.

    If you wanted to set off the phrase because he was the star as a parenthetical (as in example #3), you can. But there would be no comma after both pie and and, as shown in the incorrect example #4.

    Other examples of this same construction—

    She searched for her brother yet since he’d been gone for so long, no one remembered him.

    She was sentenced to forty years and though I found the sentence heartbreaking, I couldn’t change it.

    I needed to buy eggs but because the store was out, I couldn’t make my cake.

    I wanted to be able to point you to a source or reference for this construction, but I couldn’t find one. I do remember one craft book I read quoted a Hemingway line that doesn’t use a comma in this construction, but I can’t recall which book it was.

    If any reader can shed more light on this issue, maybe point us to a reference that covers the issue, please jump in.

    • Colin says:

      Who knew a couple commas would elicit such a detailed response? Thanks for your reply to my question, Beth. I didn’t even realize that first comma could be unnecessary. I figured the second comma with the dependent clause was neccessary, though I’d seen recently an established writer omit it, which is why I asked. I’m working on a couple fiction manuscripts, editing them. I wrote the books years ago before I knew the details of grammar, especially relating to these pesky commas. I still don’t know all the details, but thank you again for helping.

  12. Colin says:

    Example:

    I can’t quote you a definitive source for this one yet because the dependent clause comes between the two independent clauses, you can argue that the first comma is unnecessary.

    (Without the comma before yet, the meaning seems to be that you can’t quote a definitive source in the sense of you’re not able to quote it at this time but may be able to later on.)

    I can’t quote you a definitive source for this one, yet because the dependent clause comes between the two independent clauses, you can argue that the first comma is unnecessary.

    (With the first comma, the meaning is simply that you can’t quote a definitive source, but this is related to the conjunction “yet”, which has a time connotation. If you used “but” instead of “yet”, there wouldn’t be a different meaning if you omitted the comma.)

    I would have to read through my manuscripts all over again looking for those instances in which I have an unnecessary comma. I think I’ll just leave them in since you said it’s commonly done with that form of sentence construction. I read above that you don’t like too many commas when you read a book, but I think only writers and editors pay close attention to the nuances of grammar, like proper comma usage, when they’re reading.

  13. Yes, I stuck that sentence in with that construction on purpose, as an example of what we were talking about. Keep in mind that yet used as a conjunction has much the same meaning that but has. The time connotation for yet is attached to the word when it operates as an adverb rather than as a conjunction.

    You could use either of the constructions (with or without that first comma) since both seem to be acceptable in fiction. But do consider dropping that first comma. The middle of those sentences is a dependent clause and it comes after an independent one, which typically means no comma. It’s that coordinating conjunction before it that’s the problem child. That’s the info I was trying to find for you, what to do with a coordinating conjunction joined to a subordinating one.

    If I ever find a reference that clears up the point, I’ll be sure to mention it here.

    Thanks for the question. It led to a fascinating search.

  14. Tom says:

    Here’s what has me puzzled:

    What if a nonessential phrase at the end of a sentence starts with a FANBOYS word? Nonessential elements are supposed to be set off by commas. Does a FANBOYS word change it from nonessential to dependent?

    Take your example: “Lisa swallowed a bug or choked on a sesame seed.”

    Couldn’t a comma follow bug because the writer wanted “choked on a sesame seed” to be read as an afterthought, a nonessential element?

    “Lisa swallowed a bug, or choked on a sesame seed. Who knows? She’s a nut.”

    It seems there are times when a writer really wants that pause in there to convey that the thought isn’t a fluid one.

    “Lisa swallowed a bug, or choked on a sesame seed, or had an epiphany. Who can tell?”

    Obviously it’s up to writers to convey what they want to convey. But in my examples would they actually be breaking grammatical rules? Rules are made to be broken, especially by artists, but I still want to know.

    • A great question, Tom.

      The rule in question here is the one that says we don’t split two actions in the predicate. So there would not be a comma after bug according to the rule.

      Could you add one? Writers do it all the time, so yes, it’s certainly a possibility. But you wanted to know if it’s breaking a rule. It is.

      I don’t see something like that as a nonessential element, so I don’t know that that’s a good argument.

      One fix would be to add a subject—Lisa swallowed a bug, or maybe she choked on a sesame seed—or split one sentence into two—Lisa swallowed a bug. Or she choked on a sesame seed.

      As for a list of three or more actions—they typically do get commas, yet not usually when the coordinating conjunction is included between each. So we’d usually write Lisa swallowed a bug, choked on a sesame seed, or had an epiphany OR Lisa swallowed a bug or choked on a sesame seed or had an epiphany. Do writers use commas in such situations, even with the repeated conjunction? Again, yes. But they aren’t necessary in such a case.

      Did that get at the heart of your question?

  15. Tom says:

    Thanks, Beth. Don’t split the actions in the predicate. I love it–a simple, logical rule. But I still wonder about the add-ons that are allowed at the end of sentences, such as: “Lisa swallowed a bug, maybe choked on it.” No, that’s still splitting the actions in the predicate, isn’t it? It would have to be: “Lisa swallowed a bug, an unpleasant experience.” Here an afterthought is added, after a comma, and it’s grammatical. Is it because there are no more actions on Lisa’s part? I’d like to know a little more about the rules for tagging phrases on the end of sentences. My confusion seems to always come from a coordinating conjunction being involved in these tagged-on phrases.

  16. Lamia says:

    I thought I was down pat with co-ordinating conjunctions and comma use. FANBOYS is such a useful mnenomic, it was easy to learn and apply.

    Then I read Larry Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation. :(

    Are you familiar with Larry’s suggested uses of commas with co-ordinating conjunctions? Instead of FANBOYS, Larry advocates using the comma before and, or, but, yet or while.

    There’s some overlap between the two groups of words — but can anyone explain how or why Trask came up with his list? It seems to be a more recent development than FANBOYS, and I was wondering if he felt it was more reflective of the way we write or use commas these days.

  17. Jake says:

    Am I too late here? I’m curious about nonessential elements and commas in the following situation:

    “Jim started for the store, but, having forgotten his hat, he had to return home.”

    Are all three commas necessary?

    • Jake, you’re not too late. But I’m of two (or three) minds about this one.

      A couple of often-quoted rules from Strunk and White might help somewhat—

      #1 If a parenthetic expression is preceded by a conjunction, place the first comma before the conjunction, not after it.

      The example: He saw us coming, and unaware that we had learned of his treachery, greeted us with a smile.

      #2 If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.

      The example: The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

      (I admit that I couldn’t find the first rule in my own copy of Strunk and White, though it’s quoted freely online.)

      Yet another grammar rule reminds us to set off a parenthetical with commas, and I see this—unaware that we had learned of his treachery—as well as your having forgotten his hat as parentheticals that should be separated out by commas.

      Yet too many commas does seem busy, doesn’t it? So in terms of style, other options might be better choices. In published books, I’ve seen all of the following (and wouldn’t hesitate to agree with the options under certain circumstances)—

      Your example: “Jim started for the store, but, having forgotten his hat, he had to return home.”

      In this same format, I read this sentence only last night and marked it so I could quote it here—Occasionally I went racing, and, more occasionally, I actually rode in a race . . . (Silks, Dick Francis and Felix Francis, p. 97)

      Option #2: “Jim started for the store but, having forgotten his hat, he had to return home.”

      Option #3: “Jim started for the store, but having forgotten his hat, he had to return home.” (This would probably be Strunk and White’s choice.)

      Option #4: “Jim started for the store, but having forgotten his hat, had to return home.”

      ————

      With fiction, you do have options, even if they break rules. I find that too many commas can be confusing for the reader and can impede the flow. Yet sometimes you may want all those commas. Still, that would—should—probably be rare.

      Also, while we’re looking at these phrases as parentheticals, I wouldn’t consider them nonessential elements. They’re necessary for complete understanding of the sentences.

      I hope this helped. This is a great question/topic and worth an article of its own.

  18. Are these acceptable comma splices?

    He’s malicious, trust me.
    Trust me, he’s malicious.

    If not, should I write them like this?

    He’s malicious; trust me.
    Trust me; he’s malicious.

    Or like this?

    He’s malicious — trust me.
    Trust me — he’s malicious.

    Many thanks.

    Thank you.

    • Louis, they are indeed acceptable. The same would be true for believe me at the beginning or end of a sentence.

      • Lou Sanders says:

        Thank you!

        Believe me, he’s a moron. (Good?)

        Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing thing. (Is this a splice? Comma or semicolon after “everything”?)

        And would these variations work with ” trust me”?
        He’s a moron—trust me.
        Trust me—he’s a moron.
        He’s a moron; trust me.
        Trust me; he’s a moron.
        He’s a moron. Trust me.
        Trust me. He’s a moron.

        • Believe me, he’s a moron. (Good?) Yes, this works.

          ————-

          Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing thing. (Is this a splice? Comma or semicolon after “everything”?)

          This is an acceptable use of a comma splice. When there’s contrast and when one clause is negative and the other positive, you often want a comma rather than a semicolon.

          ———–

          And would these variations work with ” trust me”?
          He’s a moron—trust me.
          Trust me—he’s a moron.
          He’s a moron; trust me.
          Trust me; he’s a moron.
          He’s a moron. Trust me.
          Trust me. He’s a moron.

          They work, but I doubt I’d use the ones with semicolons. The other options are more common.

          The options with periods have a different feel—there’s definitely a pause between the two sentences, as if the two sentences aren’t necessarily related. The dash and comma imply a relationship between the clauses.

  19. Lou Sanders says:

    Hello,

    He didn’t jump, because he was scared.
    (This sentence—with the comma—means that he didn’t jump. Period.)

    He didn’t jump because he was scared.
    (The omission of the comma before “jump” means that he did actually jump—but for a reason other than the fact that he was scared.)

    And:

    Do you want a slice of pizza?
    No, thanks.
    (Comma after “No” means “No, but thank you anyway.)

    “No thanks”—without a comma—indicates an absence of gratitude.

    He received no thanks for all the hard work he did.

    Are all of these correct in terms of reasoning?

    Thank you.

    • Lou, I read your “because” sentences the same way you do. The second one, however, is calling for a follow-up to explain the reason he jumped. Without that follow-up, readers could still read the wrong meaning into that sentence.

      ———-

      Commas should follow no and yes at the beginning of a sentence in answer to a question. I admit that I use and yes without a comma if I use the phrase multiple times in the same document. That becomes a style choice for me.

      No thanks without a comma does mean someone didn’t receive thanks in a sentence such as this—She got no thanks for her efforts. But I don’t think that readers today would mistake no thanks in answer to a question for that meaning. That is, readers would understand no thanks to mean no, thank you.

      You would never be wrong to use the comma, but no thanks seems to be morphing into an acceptable usage, at least informally. Language changes, and this phrase seems to be one of the current changes.

  20. Lou Sanders says:

    Beth, can the commas be omitted in the following sentence? Can they always be omitted around the words “in fact”? Thank you.

    I knew that he was, in fact, responsible for her death.

    • Lou, I don’t have a black-and-white answer for you on this one.

      Sometimes the phrase “in fact” needs commas, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes when it does, you can omit them as a style choice.

      “In fact” is a conjunctive adverb. It’s also an interrupter. When it’s an interrupter used midsentence—like an aside or a parenthetical—give it commas before and after.

      Look at these examples that substitute actually for in fact.

      She was actually a lawyer.

      She actually was a lawyer.

      When in fact means actually and is used as an adverb, no commas are required.

      She in fact was a lawyer.

      In your example, you seem to be using in fact as an interrupter, for emphasis and/or as the opinion of the speaker. Therefore it would get commas before and after. To smooth the flow, you could omit them. But it seems that in such a situation you’d probably want to accentuate that in fact is an aside, to reinforce the opinion of the speaker. But look at these variations of your sentence—

      He was in fact responsible for her death.

      He in fact was responsible for her death.

      In fact in these sentences is not an interrupter but an integral part of the sentence.

      Go back to your original sentence. If you substitute actually without commas, does it convey the meaning you want it to? If so, you can omit the commas before and after in fact. But if you want that emphasis, that sense of reinforcing the assertion, use the commas.

      ————

      In fact used as a conjunctive adverb at the beginning of a sentence or clause would be followed by a comma.

      In fact, I’d heard he was responsible for her death.

      ———–

      I hope that helps.

  21. In this phrase and several like it, I’ve used a comma:

    He managed a smile and raised a hand, though not his right hand. That had gone and what remained of his arm was heavily bandaged just below the elbow.

    I’m told it isn’t necessary, so should I use an m dash instead?

    He managed a smile and raised a hand – though not his right hand. That had gone and what remained of his arm was heavily bandaged just below the elbow.

    • Philip, typically we do use a comma before though when it comes after an independent clause. Also before although, whereas, and while when it means whereas.

      Normally we don’t put a comma between an independent and a dependent clause when the independent one comes first. But we do use a comma in that situation with conditions of extreme contrast, and the words though, although, and whereas typically introduce that kind of contrast.

      Your impulse to want a dash here is a pretty strong signal that your intention is to set the clause apart from the one it follows. The comma is sufficient for that, although if you wanted even more attention paid to the dependent clause, you could use the dash. But your instincts are on target—the two clauses shouldn’t run together in this sentence.

      That said, you know that there are always exceptions and options for style choice. In the book I’m reading tonight, I came across a sentence in the same format but without the comma. I admit that I noticed the absence of the comma.

      My suggestion is to use the comma.

  22. I see many instances in fiction writing where the comma between to independent clauses is omitted (also for introductory dependent clauses). I’ve read that it’s acceptable if the clauses are short, but it seems almost stylistically preferred to leave the comma out.

    For example, the first sentence from The Old Man and the Sea-
    “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

    Same page further down-
    “It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry ….”

    Now that second one really sounds like a run on to me!

    I guess you just put the commas in correctly and let the editors take them out?

    Regardless, thanks for your blog post which is quite clear and helpful.

    • Brett, you’re right; sometimes it simply comes down to a style or rhythm choice. The comma is always “correct” between independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions, but sometimes it’s simply too much. That correct comma may come across as too fussy or the sentence as too busy when the comma is used.

      I was happy and I was afraid.

      Yes, this could be rewritten to eliminate the need for a comma, but it makes a strong statement as is. And with a comma? It loses some of its punch.

      I was happy, and I was afraid.

      Put the comma in most of the time, but omit it when you want to create a certain effect and the omission doesn’t cause problems for the reader. If we’re talking fiction, you’ve got leeway. Use that leeway for effect and style.

  23. Would you put a comma before the word “both” in this sentence? (I usually do in these instances, so I’m curious to see if I’m doing it wrong all of the time.)

    The Ocean of Truth by Joyce McPherson is well-written and reveals an extraordinary character in Isaac Newton both as a renowned scientist and as a virtuous and Christian man.

  24. Lad says:

    Thx for your help ahead of time. Are the commas in the sentences below put in the correct place, or could I not use the one after but, there and next?
    1) But, after the adventure on the runaway train, Jack’s heart was changed.
    2) There, Jack discovered a sad sight.
    3) Next, Jack saw a mother who looked very tired

    In this sentence below “was” is correct to use, right?
    4) The large group of people was helping to build the home.

  25. Lad says:

    And, one more. Thank you!

    Are these commas correct?
    His little sister, Annie, jumped up nearly knocking it over.

  26. Lad says:

    So sorry- found one more question regarding the “while phrase” and if I need a comma after it?

    While Catie was enjoying a tea party with her dollies, she overheard a little girl begging her mommy for one of her own.
    OR
    While Catie was enjoying a tea party with her dollies she overheard a little girl begging her mommy for one of her own.

  27. Kelly says:

    Without inverting the sentence below, would a comma, dash, or colon be the correct punctuation mark to introduce “Steve Hamilton” and “Mark Connor” at the end of each sentence?

    I would like to speak on behalf of a man for whom I have tremendous respect, Steve Hamilton.

    There is only one man for that position, Mark Connor.

    I am thinking that the comma before the name in each sentence makes it look like a direct address, so should I use a dash or colon instead? See below.

    I would like to speak on behalf of a man for whom I have tremendous
    respect—Steve Hamilton.

    I would like to speak on behalf of a man for whom I have tremendous
    respect: Steve Hamilton.

    There is only one man for that
    position—Mark Connor.

    There is only one man for that
    position: Mark Connor.

    I am thinking that either the dash or the colon (not the comma) is the way to go in all examples.

    Your thoughts or opinions, please.

    Many thanks.

  28. Hannah says:

    Is it ever ok to use a comma without a conjunction while connecting two sentences?

    For Example:

    Johnny is very tired, he went to bed late last night.

    Would this be acceptable, or would you just use a period instead of a comma?

    • Hannah, if you’re striving to be grammatically correct, you typically don’t use a comma alone to join (or separate) two sentences. Use a comma with a conjunction, use a period by itself, use a semicolon by itself, or make one of the independent clauses a dependent one. Using a comma without a conjunction creates a comma splice, a no-no in formal writing.

      However, there are reasons to break rules, and in fiction we get a lot of leeway for style choices. So, yes, it’s sometimes quite okay to use a comma without a conjunction to connect sentences. Yet we often limit this rule-breaking to specific instances—when the sentences are short, when they’re similar in wording or meaning or tone, or when the sentences are a contrast, often with a negative coming before a positive.

      A common example is I came, I saw, I conquered.

      A couple of other examples:

      Tom was tall, Sally was short.

      He didn’t do it, she did.

      For your example, I wouldn’t use the comma splice. But I might reword a bit—Since he went to bed so late last night, Johnny was tired.

      I hope this helps.