Public Enemy #1: The Comma (Part II. The hunt continues…)

We’ve almost got it. Just a few more rules to go and you’re on your way to comma mastery!

S&W Rule 4: “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” (p. 5)

  • Here’s an easy way to remember it: When you are combining two complete sentences with a conjunction, use a comma.
  • The test: Would the phrases on either side of the conjunction be sentences by themselves? If so, use a comma before the conjunction. If not, the conjunction is fine by itself.
  • Examples:
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home from the doctor, and then she made them both a snack.
      • Is this a sentence? “Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home from the doctor.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence? “Then she made them both a snack.” Yes, it is.
      • Ah-hah! We have two independent clauses, so we combine them using a comma and the conjunction “and.”
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home and made them both a snack.
      • Is this a sentence? “Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence? “Made them both a snack.” NO, it’s not.
      • We do not have two independent clauses, so there is no comma before the “and.”

S&W Rule 5: “Do not join independent clauses with a comma.” (p. 5)

  • This is also referred to as a “comma splice.”
  • An easy way to remember:  If both sides of the comma could be sentences by themselves, you should either 1) combine them with a comma and conjunction or 2) use a semicolon.
  • Example: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons, she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
    • Test:
      • Is this a sentence: “Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence: “She had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.” Yes, it is.
      • OK, we have two independent clauses, so we can’t use a comma by itself, but we have two choices:
        • Comma + conjunction: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons, for she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
        • Semicolon: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons; she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
  • A note on semicolons:
    • Yay, semicolons! The semicolon is that little piece of punctuation that most people gave up on in fourth grade… “I can get by just fine with commas and conjunctions, thank you”… Well, you can, but you can also get by just fine with Ramen noodles and frozen pizza. It’s time to branch out.
    • Here’s the rule: When you have two independent clauses that are closely related, you can combine them with a semicolon. The relationship between the two sentences is usually one of cause and effect or vice versa.
    • A good test for this: if could you use “because” or “so,” you can use a semicolon.
    • Examples:
      • In the above example, we could combine the two sentences with “because”: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons because she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
      • In this instance, we could use “so”: Dr. Catnip got too close; Mittens had to be more careful.

S&W Rule 6: Do not break sentences into two. (Do not use periods for commas.) (p. 7)

  • You will know that you have broken a sentence when you create a sentence fragment – something that isn’t a complete sentence by itself.
  • Wrong: He was cunning. A cat who knew what he wanted and how to get it.
  • Right: He was cunning, a cat who knew what he wanted and how to get it.

So there you have it – the comma revealed!

According to S&W, “Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature” (p. 7). The best way to master them? Practice. Take the examples I’ve given you and create sentences of your own following the rules.

If you have any questions or would like to subject yourself to an even geekier explanation, stop by the center and I will be happy to oblige!   

Next week we’ll tackle colons and dashes.

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