Commas and Independent Clauses

purple commaIt’s time for more fascinating punctuation. That subtle little comma is possibly the most misused punctuation mark in the English language. That’s really saying something, since English also has apostrophes.

This post will focus on independent clauses, which deserve a short review in case anyone doesn’t know what they are. An independent clause is anything that could be a complete sentence, regardless of length. This usually requires a subject and a verb, although there are one-word sentences where the subject is assumed to be you. Example: Sit. Everyone understands that the subject is you.

But generally, a subject is included. Mary ran is an example of a perfectly acceptable independent clause, and thus also a short sentence.

Independent clauses don’t have to be short. For example: She could hear the zombies coming up fast, their terrible moans giving wings to her feet.

We could simply write these two thoughts as sentences: Mary ran. She could hear the zombies coming up fast, their terrible moans giving wings to her feet.

We could join them with a semicolon: Mary ran; she could hear the zombies coming up fast, their terrible moans giving wings to her feet.

We could also join them with a conjunction. Conjunctions are words that glue phrases and clauses together. My favorite mneumonic is FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). If you use a conjunction to join two independent clauses, a comma goes before the conjunction.

So we could also write: Mary ran, for she could hear the zombies coming up fast, their terrible moans giving wings to her feet. Note the comma before the word for.

When you join independent clauses with a conjunction, you should use a comma. More examples:

  • Spring is coming, for I saw the first crocuses today.
  • I am editing my manuscripts, and I have killed many words.
  • She won’t listen to me, nor will she take her husband’s advice.
  • I want some cake, but my doctor says I can’t have any sugar.
  • We can play a game, or we could take the dogs for a walk.
  • She says she loves me, yet she humiliates me every chance she gets.
  • My mother-in-law is coming, so I have to clean my house.

Notice that each of the above clauses can be broken into complete sentences. The following do not require commas:

  • Spring is coming for us all.
  • I am editing my manuscripts and swearing.
  • She will listen neither to me nor her husband.
  • Cake is great but fattening.
  • We could play a game or walk the dogs.
  • My mother-in-law is coming so soon.

You can follow this rule, and you will never be wrong. However, Chicago Manual of Style has said that we can omit the comma if the independent clause is very short. You do not have to do this. You can always put it in if you like. But I’m trying to be complete, so I should tell you about this as well.

The following two quotes are from Gramarly,

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition, 2010 — at section 6.28) tells us “when independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other conjunction, a comma usually recedes the conjunction. If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted unless the clauses are part of a series. These recommendations apply equally to imperative sentences, in which the subject (you) is omitted but understood.”

The Modern Language Association gives similar advice. In its MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd edition, 2008 — at 3.4.2a), we are told “use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for , nor, or, so, or yet) joining independent clauses in a sentence. But the comma may be omitted when the sentence is short and the connection between the clauses is not open to misreading if unpunctuated.”

My personal guideline for very short is two words.

  • Mary drove to the convention and Barbara walked.
  • George was overjoyed at the news and Martha cried.

However, as stated before, you would not be wrong to put the commas in.

  • Mary drove to the convention, and Barbara walked.
  • George was overjoyed at the news, and Martha cried.

Most of the time I simply put them in, and I highly recommend this unless you have a very firm grasp on the rule.

Keep writing. : )


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