Conjunctions, they hold the literary world together, one sentence at a time.
Yet one of the most common mistakes I see writers make is either using commas with conjunctions when they don’t need to or not using them at all. This is one of the (few) easy rules of punctuation that once you know it, it’ll improve the technical quality of your writing immensely. So let’s dive in!
What is a Conjunction? Let’s Look for FANBOYS!
When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to watch on TV was the short Schoolhouse Rock videos. I learned all about how bills became laws and Westward Expansion and what adverbs were. It was also my first exposure to conjunctions.
Per this classic, a conjunction’s function is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses. ” But this iconic video (that I now hope you have the song stuck in your head all day 🙂 ) focuses on only the three most common conjunctions –
They briefly mention “nor,” but they forget all of the other conjunctions, and they don’t talk about commas at all. I suppose adding punctuation to the discussion would’ve been a bit too much to expect from a 3-minute, Saturday morning cartoon. However, let’s talk about the rest of those conjunctions Schoolhouse Rock left in the train yard. These include:
• Nor (only briefly mentioned in the video, so I’m listing it here)
Together, all of these conjunctions can be remembers as FANBOYS.
Use this FANBOYS acronym to help you remember if a word is a conjunction or not. Once you spot a conjunction in your sentence (and I highly recommend doing a SEARCH when you’re done writing for each, to make sure you’ve caught all of them), you can then start to evaluate whether or not you need a comma.
To Comma or Not to Comma — That is the Question!
Once you’ve spotted one of the FANBOYS, take a look at what it’s joining. If the two pieces it’s joining are BOTH complete sentences — use a comma. If the two pieces it’s joining are not BOTH complete sentences — don’t use a comma.
Let’s look at some examples.
She ran home but didn’t make it in time.
She ran home, but she didn’t make it in time.
Notice how there’s no comma in the first sentence, before the “but.” Yet in the second sentence, we do have a comma. Why is that?
In the first sentence the two pieces of sentence “but” is joining is –
She ran home
didn’t make it in time
She ran home is a complete sentence. A complete sentence has both a noun and a verb. “She” is the subject. “Ran” is the verb. It could standalone as a sentence on it’s own.
However, didn’t make it in time isn’t a complete sentence. There’s no subject. It can’t standalone as a sentence on it’s own, so no comma is needed before the conjunction.
Now, let’s look at the second sentence components “but” is linking together.
She ran home
She didn’t make it in time
We have the same first component that is a complete sentence, but this time we also have a complete sentence in the joined second component. We have the subject “she” and the verb “didn’t.” That second component can standalone as a sentence on it’s own.
Use a comma!
It really is that simple.
So… The Trouble Child
“So” is the trouble child what would be a very cut-and-dry rule of grammar. With “so,” whether or not you use a comma depends on whether so is introducing an independent or dependent clause. Let’s go straight to examples.
She went to the doctor so she could get her foot x-rayed.
She went to the doctor, so she had to pay an office visit fee.
In the first sentence, “so” is introducing “she could get her foot x-rayed.” This is a dependent clause. It needs “She went to the doctor” to make sense. You wouldn’t say:
She went to the doctor. She could get her foot x-rayed.
In the second sentence, “she had to pay an office visit fee” is independent, so you need a comma. You could separate out these two pieces of the sentence, and they can standalone. You could say:
She went to the doctor. She had to pay an office visit fee.
If in doubt, try replacing the word “so” with the word “therefore.” If your sentence still makes sense, use a comma!
Conjunctions at the Beginning of a Sentence
When I was in school, we learned many rules of grammar, but one that stuck out to me was:
You never start a sentence with a conjunction.
Well, Mrs. Saxe, you were WRONG!
I don’t know how this commonly held belief came to existence, but it’s simply not true. David Crystal, of The Story of English in 100 Words, has a pretty solid theory of how this grammatical injustice came to pass:
During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children overused them in their writing.
But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are.
Shame, teachers, shame!
It is absolutely acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction. If you look through this post, you’ll see several examples. In fact, I would much rather a writer start a sentence with a conjunction than have exceedingly long, multiple conjunction sentences that are difficult to read.
When used properly, beginning a sentence with a conjunction can add emphasis to that sentence, rather than simply joining it to the preceding sentence. Let’s look at two examples:
Josie had all the finer things in life, but she didn’t have love.
Josie had all the finer things in life. But she didn’t have love.
In the first sentence, you have a slight pause of the comma. In the second sentence, you have the full stop of the period, making the fact that Josie didn’t have love a bit more of a surprise – more impactful for the reader. Use this skill effectively, and it can take your writing to the next level.
But what about commas and conjunctions
at the beginning of a sentence?
Here’s the rule, and I will say it’s one of the hardest for me to follow. Do NOT use a comma after a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence unless it is the first of a pair of commas that set off a non-essential parenthetical phrase. Let’s look at some examples to help clear this up.
So what types of cookies did you make?
No parenthetical phrase at all equals no comma.
But, in my opinion, I think the chocolate chip cookies will sell the most.
“In my opinion” is non-essential to the sentence, so gets commas to off-set it, which puts one right after the “but.”
Yet regardless of my opinion, they only made oatmeal raisin cookies.
This one’s a gray area. Is “regardless of my opinion” essential or non-essential? That’s up to you. Personally, I feel it’s essential, so no comma after the “yet.”
The Oxford Comma
There is one more instance of conjunction and comma conundrum. It’s known as — The Oxford Comma.
I’ll do a post in full on this at a later date; however, we’ll talk about it briefly here. When you have a list of four or more items you use a comma before the conjunction. That’s pretty straight-forward.
I like chocolate ice cream, pizza, fried chicken, and spaghetti.
However, when you have only three items, there’s a strong debate about whether or not a comma is needed. This comma, when used in a list of three items, is known as an “Oxford Comma.”
I do not like broccoli, sushi, and lima beans.
Adding this comma in a list of just three items was associated with Oxford University Press’s style guide, hence the name — Oxford Comma.
To this day, many people feel it’s often unnecessary. We’ll cover both sides of this debate in a future post. In the meantime, if you have a list of three items, talk to your publisher to see which they prefer.
Here at Cypress Canyon Publishing, we prefer manuscripts submitted to us do NOT use the Oxford Comma, unless it is needed for sentence clarity.
Kimberly is the founder and managing editor of Cypress Canyon Publishing. She does not edit her own writing, so please forgive her for any errors. She is a firm believer in the – Do as I say, not as I do Rule. 🙂