Commas and conjunctions: a rant

It’s about time for another “grammar rant,” isn’t it?

Technically, this one is about punctuation, not grammar:  commas and why using a comma after a conjunction-type word at the beginning of a sentence is just weird.

Consider this sentence:  But, I changed my mind.

Why should it have a comma?  (Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller…?)  This is not an entirely rhetorical question; I’d be interested in hearing an explanation that doesn’t boil down to “some writers like it that way” or “who cares?”  (Neither of these is a good reason.  As another blogger said today, “Never do something unless you can understand (and defend) why you did it.”)  But is a conjunction; it is standard to use a comma before a conjunction in a sentence.  When that conjunction word is the first word in a sentence, you can’t have a comma before it, obviously.  What doesn’t make any sense is placing the comma after the conjunction instead.

If the example was part of a compound sentence, it could look something like this:  I woke up this morning thinking I’d like to go to Camelot, but I changed my mind.

See how there’s no comma after the word but?  Why do you think that is?

Try this one:  I woke up this morning thinking I’d like to go to Camelot, but, now that I think about it more, maybe I won’t.

The sentence does have a comma after but, and it is correct as written.  This in no way contradicts of what I’ve already said.  If I removed now that I think about it more, the comma after but would have to go, because it’s only there to set that bit apart from the rest of the sentence.  Notice that there’s also a comma after it to close it up.

I’ve used but in these examples.  However, the same guidelines apply to other conjunctions:  and, yet, etc.  Beginning a sentence with one of these words is accepted in informal writing such as fiction and personal essays, but don’t relocate the comma.  You broke up a compound sentence; the comma in the middle is gone.

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As always, if you have questions about any of this, ask.  Suggest topics for future “grammar rants.”  Tell me about your own pet peeves in stuff you’ve read.  (By the way, I’ve decided that I’m a grammar ninja; it’s so much better than that other term for a person who cares a lot about the mechanics of writing.)

Also, this is not meant to cause panic in NaNoWriMo participants.  I understand why you’re not concerning yourselves with the nuances of punctuation right now.  You’re also not going to publish your NaNo efforts without going back and correcting a few things first.  When November is over, and you’ve had some time to back away from the story for a bit, then you can worry about whether or not you’ve put the commas where they belong.  Mercenary Proofreader, grammar ninja, will be happy to offer advice if you want it.  For now, here’s wishing you a high word count every day of this month.  🙂

 

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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5 Responses to Commas and conjunctions: a rant

  1. Laura L. says:

    Bwahahahaha. If you want to get royally torqued off about comma slices, just scan any one of my posts. Somewhere or other I recently crowned myself Queen of the Comma Splice, I will write about it someday. But, you didn’t rant about starting sentences with conjunctions!

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  2. The comma after the beginning conjunction may serve simply as a visual cue for the little voice inside one’s head to lengthen the pause between the words: a performance function rather than a grammar function.

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  3. Mei-Mei says:

    I daresay a grammar ninja would have a better costume than a grammar Nazi 😉
    I also have no doubt that I would write a sentence like “But, I changed my mind.” I know I use unnecessary commas, because when I’m writing it’s kind of like translating what I hear in my head, so if I paused after “but” I’d put a comma. Actually, I might even put a period to emphasize it even more, especially if it’s part of the narration. My current narrator uses lots of sentence fragments.

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  4. I can check my references, but I think it has to do with the dependency of the clause in question.

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