This it the first part of three lessons about where to place commas. I hope you find them useful.
That crucial comma – Part 1
Even though the comma is such a tiny thing, it holds enormous power, able to completely change a sentence. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma,’ gets a totally different meaning when you omit the comma; ‘Let’s eat Grandma.’ It can even make the difference between winning court cases or not (see this article).
This first lesson will be on the placement of commas between independent and dependent clauses.
Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of the seven coordinating conjunctions
The coordinating conjunctions being, of course; for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (it’s easy to remember when you use the acronym FANBOYS).
Example: I had a coffee, and I had a donut.
If the subject does not appear in front of the second verb, a comma is generally unnecessary.
Example: I had a coffee and had a donut.
But sometimes a comma in this situation is necessary to avoid confusion.
Confusing: I saw that he was leaving and had a donut.
Clearer with comma: I saw that he was leaving, and had a donut.
Without a comma, the reader is liable to think that ‘he’ was the one who had a donut.
Some writers omit the comma if the clauses are both quite short.
Example: I drink and he eats.
Many inexperienced writers run two independent clauses together by using a comma instead of a period. This results in the dreaded run-on sentence or, more technically, a comma splice.
Incorrect: He ate all the donuts, he drank all the wine.
There are several simple remedies:
Correct: He ate all the donuts. He drank all the wine.
Correct: After he ate all the donuts, he drank all the wine.
Correct: He ate all the donuts, and he drank all the wine.
Correct: He ate all the donuts and drank all the wine.
Use commas after dependent clauses and introductory clauses, phrases, words or adverbs that come before the main (independent) clause
When starting a sentence with a dependent clause, use a comma after it. A comma is usually unnecessary when the sentence starts with an independent clause followed by a dependent clause.
Example: If you aren’t staying for dinner, let me know now.
Example: Let me know if you aren’t staying for dinner.
Follow the same policy with introductory phrases.
Example: Having finally decided on the menu, we ordered our meals.
Example: We ordered our meals having finally decided on the menu.
However, if the introductory phrase is clear and brief (three or four words), the comma is optional.
Example: When in town we go partying.
But always add a comma if it would avoid confusion.
Example: Last Sunday, evening classes were canceled.
(The comma prevents a misreading.)
When an introductory phrase begins with a preposition, a comma may not be necessary even if the phrase contains more than three or four words.
Example: Into the dark night she gazed.
If such a phrase contains more than one preposition, a comma may be used unless a verb immediately follows the phrase.
Example: Between the red wine on the left and the white wine on the right, the beer glass stood proudly.
Example: Between the red wine on the left and the white wine on the right stood the beer glass.
Also, insert a comma when ‘however’ starts a sentence. Phrases like ‘on the other hand’ and ‘furthermore’ also fall into this category. Starting a sentence with ‘however,’ however, is discouraged by many careful writers. A better method would be to use ‘however’ within a sentence after the phrase you want to negate, as in the previous sentence.
Many adverbs end in ‘-ly’ and answer the question ‘how?’ How did someone do something? How did something happen? When you start your sentence with these adverbs, they are also followed by a comma.
Example: Majestically, he walked up to me.
Next time I’ll talk about how to incorporate a comma into a sentence more creatively.