Sunday, 12 October 2008

Commas and Conjunctions

Hello Readers and Writers,

Something has been bothering me during the course of my editing. It's about commas and conjunctions. I wonder if you good people can throw some light on this matter?

Many of the corrections I'm working on involve deciding whether to keep commas or delete them. This is particularly confusing when a comma occurs just before a conjunction. One of my kind readers, judging from their feedback, is of the opinion that a comma should almost never precede a conjunction. I'm not so convinced, so I would welcome any thoughts you had on this matter.

Here are some examples, which I've tried to categorise. I've highlighted the conjunctions and put the questionable commas in brackets.

Type Example
Simple "People who called me a friend in a time of difficulty[,] and taught me most of what I've worked on here."
Double "Why work here diligently[,] and then turn and sabotage us?"
List "The colours of the French flag are red, white[,] and blue."
Long "Brandt tapped the console keyboard to access the department audit page[,] and requested the security logs of the laboratories from the night before."
Clarity "Taylor said he was too busy to join us[,] and to put some of the food aside."

In your opinion, which of these types should have the comma and which should not? And why?

My own thoughts, which may well be wrong, are as follows:

Simple The comma can be omitted, since the conjunction serves as a pause.
Double Either keep the comma or the conjunction, but not both.
List Americans: Keep the final comma.
Brits: Lose the final comma.
Long Keep the comma, as it serves to break up an otherwise long sentence.
Clarity Keep it. Leaving out the comma would imply that Taylor was too busy to put some food aside (as well as too busy to join us). This would be incorrect.

I realise that this is going to be basic stuff for many of you, and that I should probably go and re-read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but language is liquid as they say. I would like to get a modern set of opinions.

Your thoughts?


liz fenwick said...

This is traicky area and I have loaned my copy of Getting the POint to a Friend but my thoughts are as follows - having both the comma and the and in the sentece confuses it - or at least what I think it's trying to say so leave both out to my mind.

One the second I don't think you need the first and or a comma at that point and the second and is fine.

Third - its the US thing so which market are you targeting?

Fourth keep comma because it is two spearte thoughts.

Fifth - don't think you need it but it would be fine.

I am fairly hopeless myself but reading it aloud I try and work it out! Good luck.

Lane said...

I really, really dislike commas preceding 'and'. The whole point of the 'and' conjunction is to join two clauses (instead of a comma) and unless a pause is absolutely necessary to convey sense, I would never use.

However ... conjunctions such as 'yet' 'so' etc and to a certain extent 'but' often do require a pause in the rhythm to convey meaning and I'll concede these, although I'm not always comfortable with them and I think they're overused.

Reading aloud to locate natural pauses usually solves the problems.

It's a bit of a minefield isn't it?:-)

HelenMH said...

Total minefield, but I agree with you on all except the fourth example where I wouldn't use a comma. Number three, I believe is known as an Oxford comma and even the experts can't agree on that!

Fiona said...

I know I shouldn't comment because I am a grammar lout - so I won't. See I use dashes instead of commas which is a very bad habit. Don't do that.

Thank you for putting my little book up, Captain. I think that comma was okay.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I think I agree with you. And Helen is right about the Oxford comma, there are some interesting websites about that if you feel like having a nerdy punctuation moment!

Caroline said...

I suspect I'm the reader in question, so I've been following the comments with interest!

I was taught that the only time a comma should appear before 'and' is if it's closing a subordinate clause, e.g.:

Milo, who was wearing his hat, and I went to the zoo.

Even then I'd probably try and re-write to avoid it.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't life be easier if we didn't need to use commas at all?

CJ xx

Anonymous said...

Lane: Reading it aloud is a very good tip. I'll do more of that in the future.

Fiona: I use to use dashes in my earlier work. I was told this was copping out of "proper" punctuation but I don't see why you can't have a few.

Caroline: You suspect right. And I now think you're right ninety-odd percent of the time. Thanks again.

Crystal: I can't agree with you. If sentences didn't have commas then things would run together in a big jumble even with sub clauses and you wouldn't know where to pause. *Draws in huge breath*.

Everybody: Thank you all for you feedback. Hopefully I'll improve now.