Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Comma Rules 101

Fellow Writers and Readers,

Lately, several writers have asked me questions about commas. Today I decided to answer those questions. As always, I've linked to several additional posts. You don't have to take my word on anything. 

If you feel you understand what independent and dependent clauses are, please feel free to skip to the sections about "Combining Independent and Dependent Clauses" and "Short Clauses and Commas." Those discuss the most frequent errors. 

What's an Independent Clause?

In simple terms, an independent clause is something that can stand by itself (form a simple sentence). 

An independent clause needs to satisfy all three of these requirements:

1) has a subject
2) has a verb
3) expresses a complete thought.

An independent clause can be as short as two words (Henry jumped) or as long as you can imagine.

Find out more about independent clauses by following this link.

What's a Dependent Clause?

A dependent clause is something that cannot stand by itself (fails to form a simple sentence).

In other words, it fails to have one or more of these elements:

1) a subject
2) a verb
3) a complete thought. 

Usually, a trigger word sets off the dependent clause. The words include words like because, but, and, after, since, during, although, and though).

An example of a dependent clause is because it was raining. This fails to express a complete thought. 

Another example is ate apples. This lacks a subject. 

It's easy conceptually, but when it comes to using commas to combine clauses, more than not we mess up. 

Find out more by following this link.

Combining two Independent clauses

When combining two independent clauses, you have a few options. Let's take these two sentences: Larry likes to eat apples daily. He also enjoys going on long runs.

The most common way of linking these sentences together is to use a conjunction (and, but, so) and a comma.

Larry likes to eat apples daily, and he also enjoys going on long runs.

When you have two sentences closely linked together, you can also use a semicolon.

Larry likes apples; he also likes bananas.

We usually link two independent clauses correctly. The following sections explain where we normally mess up. 

Combining Independent and Dependent Clauses
(This is the one that's usually messed up) 

Let's take the example of Larry did not go running. This is an independent clause. It has a subject and a verb. It also expresses a complete thought.

Let's also take the example of But ate apples instead. The second example is a dependent clause because it's missing a subject.

ERROR: Many writers are tempted to put Larry did not go running, but ate apples instead.

Why is that wrong? It's wrong because the second clause does not have a subject (it's dependent). It is wrong to use a comma and a conjunction to link an independent clause and a dependent clause. 

Note: There is no such thing as an implied subject. If it doesn't have a subject, it's a dependent clause. There are no exceptions. 

There are two correct ways to write that sentence correctly:

Larry did not go running, but he ate apples instead. This converts both clauses to independent clauses. (In other words, both clauses have subjects and verbs and express complete thoughts. They both could stand alone.)

Or Larry did not go running but ate apples instead. This one keeps the dependent clause, but it is not set off by a comma. This is correct. 

Simply put, you link two clauses with a conjunction and a comma if they both can stand alone as sentences (are both independent clauses).

For more on this rule, check out these links:
 Commas before but and Commas and clauses

Short Clauses and Commas? 

Is I swore, and he turned to glare at me. or I swore and he turned to glare at me correct?

Okay this is perhaps one of the most misunderstood rules. Take a good look at the sentence structure.

It contains two independent clauses. I swore.  and He turned to glare at me. Technically following the rules, you would think we need the comma.

However, according to The Chicago Manual of Style (chapter 6 section 18), this comma can be omitted. The exact wording from Chicago is "If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted."

(A short clause is generally interpreted to be 4 words or less.) 

This means that I swore and he turned to glare at me is absolutely 100% correct. 

Really? Is that really true?

I know this is new for several people, so I've attached several links to support this claim. 

CWS Illinois (see the section "commas used to separate" number 10). You can also look at the section "commas used to set off" number 2 for examples when using adverbial phrases.
Grammarly Answers- This one shows that Gardner argues against this rule. However, both MLA, AP Styleguide, and Chicago argue for the omission of this comma.  
Ted Montgomery- see 11a. 
National Geographic Style Manual- (see number 5 and 6) 

Let me know if you have questions. You can always email me at danicapage(dot)writer(at)gmail(dot)com. 


Danica Page

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