Commas, Grammar, Punctuation

Commas 101

On the Border

This mistake is not too bad in the grand scheme of grammatical life, but it provides a nice lesson for us about commas.

Commas have about a bajillion rules, and I would say almost everyone I know admits to having a hard time remembering when to put them and when not to. My mom, for example, says that she will pretty much plug them in randomly — and I would consider her a highly skilled writer.

This one’s for you, Mom.

The first comma rule of many I will certainly discuss is the one that separates independent clauses.

First, let’s cover an independent clause. A quick Google search tells us that it is “a clause . . . that can stand alone as a complete sentence.” I think that’s a pretty good working definition. Basically, an independent clause has a subject and a verb and could be written as its own sentence. Clauses like “because I said so” or “as soon as I get paid” have subjects and verbs, but they cannot stand alone as their own sentences. (Those are examples of dependent clauses, a lesson for another time, I’m afraid.)

On this sign, we have two independent clauses: “Please phone before you leave for ON THE BORDER” and “we’ll be glad to put your name on our WAIT LIST.” Each of those could stand alone as a separate sentence. We could take “please phone before you leave for ON THE BORDER” and simply follow it with a period, or end stop. The same applies to the second clause.

As you might have seen in my previous post, “Sugar and Splice,” you can’t simply put a comma between the two; such a mistake would result in a comma splice. On the Border knows better than IHOP; it brought in support via a coordinating conjunction (in this case, and). Close but no cigar.

The only thing On the Border’s missing is a comma. Here’s your formal rule:

Use a comma with a coordinating conjunction to separate two independent clauses.

I use this quick trick to determine if I need a comma. I cover up my coordinating conjunction. I look at the clause to the left and ask, “Is that a complete sentence?” I look at the clause to the right of the conjunction and ask the same thing.  In this case, the answer to both would be yes, so I do need a comma.

You try.

Do the following sentences need a comma?

  • I climbed a mountain and I turned around. (In case you’re wondering, those are lyrics from Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”)
  • I like to read both sides of a coordinating conjunction and determine if I need a comma.
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