Monday, September 21, 2015

Commas With Conjunctions

by J. Lea López

Are you one of those writers who agonizes over commas? Some writers sprinkle them through their paragraphs with abundance and weed them back out during editing; others use them sparingly and add more to taste later on. Regardless of which type of writer you may be, it never hurts to try to learn the rules of comma placement and hopefully get it right on the first try. Now, I know that in the world of fiction writing, there's little more we hate than "rules," even when it comes to grammar. But I firmly believe that to break any rules, you must first know them well enough to understand how and why you're breaking them in the first place. Today I'll talk about a comma mistake—it's sort of two commas wrapped into one—that I frequently see during editing and also make in my own writing.

In a nutshell, here's what you need to know: you only need a comma with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, so, etc.) if you're joining two independent clauses. An independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a sentence.

If you're allergic to grammar speak, I know what you're thinking right now. Commas, conjunctions, and clauses, oh my! But I promise, it's not that difficult, and once we go through this one tiny example, you'll wonder how you ever got it wrong to begin with. I'll be the guinea pig and use a sentence from my own WIP to demonstrate.

He backed me up against the car and rested his forehead against mine. 

You might be tempted to insert a comma after car, but you don't need one there. He backed me up against the car is an independent clause, but rested his forehead against mine is not. Therefore, no comma.

He backed me up against the car, and he rested his forehead against mine.

Now you need a comma, because both clauses are independent. When in doubt, split the sentence before/after the conjunction and see if each clause is a complete sentence. If so, you need the comma along with the conjunction. He backed me up against the car. He rested his forehead against mine. See, wasn't that easy?

You need that comma whenever you use a conjunction to join independent clauses, but I see a lot of people leave it out. If the two clauses are relatively short, you can leave it out, but otherwise, comma away! Here are a few more examples to reference:

I turned around to push the elevator call button, but Luke grabbed my waist and whipped me around again, his arms closing around me like a vise. Correct. But joins two independent clauses, so you need a comma.

The priest makes eye contact again, and holds it this time. Incorrect. "Holds it this time" is not an independent clause, so there shouldn't be a comma before the conjunction.

It’s one of the stranger things I’ve ever found myself doing, but strange seems to be my only constant right now. Correct.

He released me and stepped back. Correct.

He released me and I stepped back. Comma optional. The clauses are short, so you can leave it out. But if there are issues of clarity or consistency, you should keep the comma before the conjunction.

Do you struggle with comma placement? Let me know if I've confused you more than I've clarified this issue in the comments!

J. Lea López is an author who strives to make you laugh at, fall in love with, cry over, and lust after the characters she writes. She also provides freelance copyediting focused on romance and erotica as The Mistress With the Red Pen. She welcomes online stalkers as long as they're witty and/or adulatory. Kidding. Maybe. Check for yourself: Twitter, Facebook, Blog.


Liza said...

This was a great help. I do struggle with this, and now I have an easy rule to follow. Thank you!

JeffO said...

Very helpful. Of course, when I'm writing next I'll likely forget!

Elsie Amata said...

Love this! It's like you read my MS and decided to write the post. I'm a comma queen and it's terrible. I had a ton of commas to remove. Great explanation. Thank you!

J. Lea Lopez said...

I'm glad you all found it helpful! :-)

Deborah Hawkins said...

I'm a comma soldier. lol I didn't know you didn't necessarily need a comma for two short independent clauses, though.

I don't think you need one either in this instance, but I'm not sure(I think I have one in my story somewhere): When so-n-so did this and I did that, this happened.

Or the other way around (which is now making my head hurt): This happened when so-n-so did this and I did that. Because it's different from This happened when so-n-so did this, and I did that. ??? lol

J. Lea Lopez said...

Hi Deborah! You're correct that you don't need a comma before the conjunction "and" in your example. You do need the other comma that you have there though. :-)

When she pushed the green button and I turned the crank, the door opened.
The door opened when she pushed the green button and I turned the crank.

Those sentences mean the same thing, but there's a slight different meaning if you punctuate it as in your third example:

The door opened when she pushed the green button, and I turned the crank.

If I came across that last one in editing, I would question the meaning. Is it a comma error? Are you turning the crank after the door has already opened? If it wasn't a comma error, I would strongly suggest the author rewrite the sentence to avoid any ambiguity and confusion.

As for needing or not needing the comma between two short independent clauses, I think it's one of those things that is shifting to be more common or more acceptable. I personally take it one instance at a time and decide based on a lot of different factors. :-)

Romilda Gareth said...