Comma Confusion

Chloe with the letter CMy agenda tells me it’s Tips Tuesday, which means I’ll share a writing tip.  And since today is the letter C, I’m going to talk about commas.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stir up a heated debate about the Oxford comma (for the record, I’m pro Oxford comma, and they will have to pry it out of my cold, dead, typing fingers).  My comma tip concerns commas and conjunctions.

When critiquing, one of the most common issues I notice is the misuse of the comma before a conjunction.  In many sentences, the comma is needed, but it seems to have gone on vacation.  In other sentences, the comma is not needed, yet it insists on sticking its nose where it’s not wanted.  So how do we remember whether to use a comma in front of a conjunction or not?

When I consulted my friend Google, he gave me tons of links with rules mentioning independent clauses, dependent clauses, compound components, coordinating conjunctions – the types of boring phrases that made me tune out during elementary school grammar lessons.  If you want more technical explanations, you can check out Grammar Girl or university resources.  But when I’m writing/editing, instead of thinking about the whys and wherefores, it boils down to one simple test – can the parts before and after the conjunction stand on their own as separate sentences?

For these types of sentences, I like to think of the comma as a faux period... the substitute period... a placeholder period as the sentence decides to progress some more without a full stop.  

So when I’m writing and come up with a sentence like -
The adorable dog ran outside and chased a squirrel up a tree.
- I have to decide whether there should be a comma before the ‘and’.  If I think about the potential comma as a period, then I can see it doesn’t make sense to add a comma – ‘chased a squirrel up a tree’ does not stand on its own as a complete sentence.  
Now if the sentence were instead - 
The adorable dog ran outside, and she chased a squirrel up a tree.
- then you do need the comma because it’s two complete thoughts.  If you were to read that comma as a period, then both sentences easily stand on their own.  
I hesitate to mention this because I don’t want to confuse the issue, but some experts state that from a stylistic standpoint you can omit the comma between two independent clauses if they are both short.  This is a judgment call, but make sure you understand the rule before you break it.  
In case you need a refresher, a conjunction is a connecting word, and you can use the mnemonic FANBOYS to remember them:
And remember, to decide whether you need a comma in front of one of these FANBOYS words or not, pretend like it would be a period if you put it there.  If both resulting sentences are complete sentences, then add the comma.  If they don’t make complete sentences, then skip the comma.
Does this help clear up potential comma confusion?  Do you have any comma tips? How Cute is Chloe with her letter C?


K.T. Hanna's picture

I always try to use that rule, but sometimes it just fails me.

Commas and I will fight until the day I die lol

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I've always had problems with commas, so that's why I came up with tricks to help me remember.

Sheenah Freitas's picture

The Oxford comma is the comma for me, too. My editor doesn't believe in it, so I had to tell him to leave my Oxford comma alone. In order to remember a conjunction, I usually sing the School House Rock song. Love this tip. Honestly, I have no idea how to use a comma properly and doubt I ever will, but this is a good stepping stone for me.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

The School House Rock song!  What a blast from the past.  I completely forgot about it, but, you're right, it's a great way to remember.

LynneInPborough's picture

thanks for this Jocelyn. FANBOYS conjunctions. New to me. It's great that I'm learning English as we go along.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

FANBOYS is relatively new to me too, but I've been using my substitute period trick to keep me straight for a long time.

Anne Mackle's picture

I didn't know how to decide whether to use a comma or not.Thanks for the advice.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

You're welcome - hope it helps!

michelle's picture

Thanks for the refresher post with regards to the use of the comma. I'd forgotten all about the rules - also my first time learning about FANBOYS. I'm out of touch...
I do okay with the comma (or so I think...)

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I only discovered FANBOYS recently, but I really liked it and thought I should pass it along.

Julie Flanders's picture

I admit that I really have an issue with commas. I tend to use them more than is necessary, and I'm working to correct that. Thanks for these tips!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

I also tend to over-comma-nate (and make up words).  So I've really had to come up with tricks to keep myself from sprinkling my writing with too many commas.  

Duncan's picture

Hi Jocelyn, Chloe is very cute holding up that letter! Thanks for your visit to my blog. That's interesting and I'll try out some sentences with commas in my next English class!

This is me, Duncan D. Horne, visiting you from the A-Z challenge, wishing you all the best throughout April and beyond.
Duncan In Kuantan

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Chloe wasn't a fan of the whiteboard, but it surely does make a cute picture.  Hopefully my comma tip will help your students.

donnabmcnicol's picture

I need to save all of your blogs for reference...great stuff!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Thank you - that means a lot!

Nicole's picture

It's adorable how the dog looks painfully confused about commas. :) Nice post!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Hee!  She really does.  She wasn't a fan of the white board leaning against her, but it did end up giving her that delightfully confused expression.  

Tia Bach's picture

Great C post. Commas--a funny thing. People either seem to use them way too much or not enough. A to Z is shaping up to be a fun month! Enjoy!

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Yeah, I think I probably end up using them too much, but I try to make sure there's a rule behind it rather than just putting them in willy-nilly.  

Joyce Sully's picture

Very helpful tips. This is an area of my writing where I always feel just a bit uncertain. It seems to be one of the parts of English where hard and fast rules turn into...suggestions of varying strength.

Also, Chloe looks adorable. My dog always just looks hopelessly depressed when I take pictures of her. (Being photographed is sooo painful, you know.)

I can't wait to see what else you have in store for the A to Z Challenge.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

It does seem like a lot of the comma rules are disturbingly flexible.  I'd rather they be set in stone even if they do end up making some sentences look comma heavy.

Hee! None of the Rish dogs like having their pictures taken either.  Who knew having your picture taken hurt so much?  

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