One of the things that many students have a hard time with is the COMMA… “ , ” …that little bit of punctuation that is so very useful. Many have heard a teacher somewhere say something like, “Well, put a comma anywhere you feel like pausing or taking a breath.” While that might be what you were taught, it is just not the truth! There are some basic rules you as a writer can follow that will give you confidence in using commas correctly. Let’s take a look!
First of all, one place that we find commas is in association with a group of words called “CONJUNCTIONS.” As their name indicates, these words are a “cross-road”—a place where ideas, words, phrases and sentences come together.
Here are the common CONJUNCTIONS you’ll see and use in your writing:
•Coordinating Conjunctions (CC) join sentence elements of equal value.
for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so = FANBOYS
•Subordinating Conjunctions (SC) connect subordinate or dependent elements to a complete sentence.
after, as, because, if, since, unless, until, etc.
•Conjunctive Adverbs (CA) connect closely related independent clauses or simple sentences.
furthermore, however, nevertheless, consequently, since,
for example, therefore, as a matter of fact, etc.
We use the conjunctions a LOT…so we had best know how to punctuate them. Let’s read on and make sure first that we understand the difference between a PHRASE and a CLAUSE because this will help us understand the why and why-not of comma use.
PHRASES AND CLAUSES:
Phrases are groups of words that work or function together but do NOT contain both a subject and a verb and do NOT express a complete thought or idea:
...on the little red house... – prepositional phrase.
...would have been eating... -- verb phrase.
...skiing in the winter... -- noun phrase.
Clauses are groups of words that work or function together, and DO contain both a subject and a verb; however a clause may be independent or dependent. Independent means that the words express a complete thought; dependent means they don’t.
The car burst into flames.
IND.—expresses a complete thought or idea
After the car burst into flames,...
DEP.—incomplete thought, dependent.
Okay, let’s look a those three types of CONJUNCTIONS now. Conjunctions connect words, phrases or clauses and can be coordinating, subordinating or conjunctive.
Coordinating Conjunctions (CC) connect elements that are of equal rank:
The band played Beatles, Stones and Doors music.
The man left the house, and he did not return.
The SEVEN coordinating conjunctions are:
For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So = FANBOYS
When a coordination conjunction joins simple sentences or two independent clauses, a comma precedes the conjunction:
Mr. Herrin explained the rules of the comma, for his students did not understand how to use the comma.
Richard doesn't really like soccer, but he goes to the games anyway.
Here are some ways to understand the set up visually:
[ INDEPENDENT CLAUSE (,) CC + INDEPENDENT CLAUSE ]
S+V ,CC S+V
Simple sentence ,CC simple sentence
Charles enjoys going to the park, but he usually just wants to watch people.
MacTaco’s has really cheap food, so we go there after practice.
We usually shop at Cole’s, or we shop at Tagerts.
Each of these sentences above can be separated into two complete sentences.
Charles enjoys going to the park. He usually just wants to watch people.
MacTaco’s has really cheap food. We got there after practice.
We usually shop at Cole’s. We shop at Tagerts
Subordinating Conjunctions (SC )introduce a subordinate or dependent element into the sentence.
Some of the more common subordinating conjunctions (S.C.) are:
after, because, since, when, before, while, if
(Notice that some of these words may also function as prepositions in some cases....)
Here are how the Subordination Conjunctions (SC) work and are punctuated:
If a sentence begins with an SC, a comma must separate the dependent clause from the following independent clause (simple sentence).
While Suzie ate the chocolate, Mike ate the peanuts.
[ SC + DEPENDENT CLAUSE (,) INDEPENDENT CLAUSE. ]
SC + S+V , S+V
SC+Simple Sentence , Simple Sentence
After the long game came to an end, we all went to MacTaco’s for dinner.
Because the man could not start the car, he finally walked to work.
Since David is a determined student, he passed his classes this semester.
In the sentences above, notice that there is a comma sort of at the middle of each sentence above…there to separate the first part from the second, the dependent from the independent.
Now, make sure you understand this next part, for this is where a lot of people end up making comma errors: No comma is necessary between the two clauses/simple sentences if the dependent clause comes second or last in the sentence.
Steve built a new house because the storm destroyed his first one.
[ INDEPENDENT CLAUSE SC + DEPENDENT CLAUSE ]
S+V SC + S+V
Simple Sentence SC+Simple Sentence
We went out to eat after the game ended.
The man walked to work because his car would not start.
David passed all his classes since he is a determined student.
You find NO commas in the sentences above because the SUBORDINATING CONJUNCTION comes inside the sentence rather than beginning the sentence.
Conjunctive Adverbs (CA) serve to bring together more distantly related ideas.
Common CA's include:
however, furthermore, nevertheless, for example therefore, consequently.
They usually come between two simple sentences/independent clauses and are preceded by a semi-colon (;) and followed by a comma (,):
Shining Silver lost the race; therefore, Steve lost his life savings.
A CA may be imbedded in the second clause. In such a case, semi-colon will separate the two clauses, and the CA will be set off by commas. Look at the following examples:
By the sixth inning, the Valiants were losing; however, the game was far from over.
By the sixth inning, the Valiants were losing; the game, however, was far from over.
Take a moment to look at the two sentences above one more time before reading over the examples below.
The old woman collected old coins; for example, she collected Greek drachmas.
Carlos never did like water; furthermore, he wouldn’t even set foot on a beach!
Pedro just couldn’t get himself up in the mornings; consequently, he failed Math.
The city was built on a flat plain; therefore, the city flooded when it rained.
Everyone was on the plane on time; the plane, however, was too heavy to fly!
Again, look at how there is a semi-colon(;) and at least one comma (,) associated with each of these conjunctive adverbs/transition words/phrases.
SO! If you can understand what a simple sentence (clause) is, if you can recognize one in your own writing, and if you can recognize the patterns we’ve just studied, you are well on the way to knowing how and when to use commas and semi-colons in most cases.
Learn to recognize and use the various types of conjunctions and punctuation, and your writing will be more interesting. You can do it…so practice using these conjunctions in all your writing projects.