Commas with Coordinating Conjunctions

This is the first blog in my punctuation blog series, so I am starting with a more basic rule. Every punctuation blog will cover just one topic in depth and have an exercise at the end to practice the concept.

Coordinating Conjunction: Say What?

First, let’s get the technical jargon out of the way. A coordinating conjunction is a “word that joins together words or word groups of equal grammatical weight.” (Merriam-Webster)

So technical jargon and definition aside, let’s call them FANBOYS because the coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

 


In Lists

When you are listing out items in a series, the last item is proceeded by an “and” or an “or.”

Each item in the list is separated by a comma, but the Oxford (or serial) comma, the last comma before the conjunction, may be omitted, depending on the style guide you are following and personal preference. Some, like me, never omit the Oxford comma. (Warning: Don’t ask about the Oxford comma to a group of editors or serious grammar lovers, it will spark a vicious debate.)

EXAMPLE SENTENCES:
I enjoy reading, writing, learning, and editing.

My daughter brings joy to my heart, worry and happiness to my soul, and bags beneath my eyes.

 

Some style guides suggest you wouldn’t need the comma before the “and” in either of these sentences because the “and” acts as the separator between the last two elements. However, I follow Chicago Manual of Style which encourages always using the Oxford (serial) comma for consistency. Plus, I personally think it looks cleaner.

But both are technically correct without the comma. (It hurt me a bit to say that.)

If you prefer not to have the Oxford comma, just note that all style guides will agree sometimes it is needed.

EXAMPLE WHEN IT MUST BE USED:
This famous example has been used a lot: To my parents, Jessica and God.

 

Without the Oxford comma, it reads like Jessica and God are the person’s parents; however, the author really meant the book was dedicated to their parents, to Jessica, and to God.

 


In between Clauses

 

FANBOYS are used to join phrases and clauses, not just items in a list.

An independent clause is a complete thought with a subject and a verb—basically a sentence.

A phrase does not contain both a subject and a verb, so it is not a complete thought.

 

Rules

 

RULE #1: When a FANBOYS is joining phrases, no comma is needed—but you can opt to have a comma for stylistic reasons.

RULE #2: When a FANBOYS is joining independent clauses, you will need the comma. You can’t have just a comma between two sentences nor can you have just a FANBOYS. You need both.

Take a look at these two sentences and note the use of a comma before the FANBOYS in one sentence and the lack of comma before the FANBOYS in the other.

Note: I have underlined the subject and double underlined the verb.

JOINING CLAUSES EXAMPLE:

My daughter loves “riding” her bike, but she really is just walking her bike around the kitchen.

(Both clauses could be sentences by themselves. My daughter loves “riding” her bike. She really is just walking her bike around the kitchen.)

JOINING PHRASES EXAMPLE:

My daughter loves “riding” her bike but doesn’t do it right.

(“Doesn’t do it right” is a phrase since there is no subject.)

 

Two errors

 

Since this blog is discussing the rules, I will call these errors. But sometimes authors intentionally break the rules for stylistic reasons; however, when it isn’t for a good reason, then it is an error.

When you break rule #2, you could end up with a run on or a comma splice.

Comma splice:  Independent clauses joined with just a comma.

COMMA SPLICE EXAMPLE:
I love punctuation marks, they are fun to play with.(That sentence is missing the FANBOYS. I could insert a FANBOYS after the comma: I love punctuation marks, for they are fun to play with. Or I could make it two separate sentences: I love punctuation marks. They are fun to play with. I could also use a subordinating conjunction or a semicolon, but those are topics for another blog post.)

 

Run on: Independent clauses joined with just a FANBOYS.

Now you know what a run on really is; it is not a long sentence. It is a sentence that should have a pause indicated by a comma, but it doesn’t, causing one to run on and on through the sentence.

RUN ON EXAMPLE:

I love punctuation marks for they are fun to play with.

(That sentence is missing the comma. To fix it, just put a comma before the FANBOYS “for.”)

 

A run on could be a long sentence: I love punctuation marks for they are fun to play with but sometimes the rules trip me up and I get frustrated with them.

But what makes that sentence a run on is not the length. It is a run on because you have FANBOYS in between sentences without a comma. In fact, there are three FANBOYS joining independent clauses.

 

A little about stylistic choice

 

After I finish my punctuation series, I will end with a fun blog post on breaking the rules for stylistic reasons. But for now, here is one stylistic choice.

While a comma usually does not proceed a FANBOYS when joining phrases, one might choose to add one for dramatic emphasis.

EXAMPLE OF STYLISTIC COMMA:

I didn’t think it was right, and said so.

(No comma is required, but the author may choose to have it to place extra emphasis on the “said so.” By inserting the comma, the author creates a pause before the second half, and that slight pause puts emphasis on the phrase “said so.”)

 


A Note About “So”

 

While “so” is a coordinating conjunction, it also has other functions, and as a conjunction, it has two definitions.

So as a conjunction could mean “and for that reason” (therefore).

So as a conjunction could mean “with the aim that or in order that.”

When it is used as the first definition (therefore), a comma is used. When it is used as the second definition (that), a comma is not used.

EXAMPLES OF “SO”:
I am pregnant and hot, so I don’t go outside.

He stood in front of me to cover my bump so no one else would notice.

(Trick: put the word “that” after “so.” If it works, no comma needed. It wouldn’t make sense to say “I am pregnant and hot so that I don’t go outside. Therefore, you need the comma. It does make sense to say “He stood in front of me to cover my bump so that no one else would notice.” Therefore, you do not need the comma.)

 


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