Commas in compound sentences: yes or no?

I’m keeping this short as I can to avoid it turning into a “grammar rant” (technically a punctuation rant), especially since what I want here is to get some feedback/advice from people who may be more familiar with the way the trendy kids are writing these days, because, after all, if the trendy kids say punctuation is passé, who are the rest of us to argue and keep doing it as we were taught?

*sigh* Okay, so I got a little bit rant-y anyway. I’ll try to do better, but I make no promises…

I see a lot of fiction these days in which no commas are used in compound sentences (or in other places, but let’s stick with one issue at a time). Has it become incorrect to use them? If so, can anyone point me to a reliable source for the new rules of comma usage? Everything I see online about it says I’m doing it correctly, but so much of what I read in recently published books indicates commas are just, y’know, out of fashion and therefore incorrect, bad writing, the mark of an old fuddy-duddy who probably even uses semicolons. (Yes, I do, but I didn’t learn how while at university, no matter what Vonnegut said. Semicolons are easy, kids; they only have two possible uses, unlike commas, which have fifteen. Maybe that’s why no one wants to use commas anymore, either.)

Don’t look at me like that. Most readers of my blog enjoy my grammar rants. Nothing like a middle-aged guy totally losing his cool over bad writing to make the rest of the day seem so rational in comparison…

Anyway. Commas in compound sentences — yay or nay? I don’t want any “It’s your writing, do whatever you feel like” kind of answer, though. Obviously there’s no law saying Thou Shalt Write THIS Way Or Else! *rolls eyes* I want to know what is generally considered correct now. I suspect it’s still what I learned (through reading — school was useless), but if not, I’d like to know why (and “Says who??”), and what the new standard for comma usage is.

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It only now occurred to me that I may need to give an example of what a compound sentence is.

I looked at my cat, and she meowed at me.

That’s a compound sentence; it could be turned into two shorter sentences just by removing the conjunction (and) and replacing the comma with a period.

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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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16 Responses to Commas in compound sentences: yes or no?

  1. Well, well, well. Great question. I didn’t use them and then received feedback (when I started writing seriously) that they were non-negotiable. I have tried to train myself to put them in there and consider it a typo if I don’t. Commas drive me crazy in general. Hopefully, I punctuated this comment correctly. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    I’ve heard that for compound sentences, if the sentence is already long or employs a lot of commas, they aren’t necessary. Depends. Not going to make this comment much longer because I have been writing typos all day! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rachelloon says:

    Is that an example of the Oxford comma, or do they only come at the end of lists? Either way, I stick commas, dashes and semicolons in whenever I feel like them mostly, and it hasn’t stopped me from becoming the greatest author on the planet! (even if no one else seems to have noticed) XD

    Liked by 2 people

  4. svrtnsse says:

    I’ve been going towards using commas for compound sentences. On occasion I still don’t if I feel strongly that the comma ruins the flow of the sentence or has a negative impact on the rhythm, but for the most part I know use commas.
    I’m pretty sure I picked that up after an earlier grammar rant on this very blog. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MishaBurnett says:

    I seem to remember being told that it depends on the conjunction. Compound sentences which are joined by “and” don’t take commas. Compound sentences which are joined by “but” or “yet” do take commas. Thus:

    It was raining outside and I went to the store.
    It was raining outside, but I went to the store.

    I can’t site a source on this, though.

    Like

  6. I think most of these “writers” never learned any grammar. They don’t use it because they don’t know it. I don’t think it’s their style. I think it’s ignorance.

    I use punctuation. Also adverbs, semi-colons, commas, and periods. I do not start every post with OMG or WTF, nor conclude every sentence with multiple exclamation points or smiley faces.

    Maybe YOU should write the new grammar guide. It would be a hoot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have gotten into the bad habit of using acronyms and emoticons on my blog sometimes because I often fear some readers would not understand me if I didn’t ‘speak their language.’ Also, since part of the reason I began blogging a few years ago was to attempt to teach myself how to communicate like a ‘normal’ (read: average/typical/non-autistic) person, I probably ought to be using MORE such shortcuts.

      According to things I’ve heard from English grad students recently (my spies are everywhere — I mean, my clone took a course in creative nonfiction), punctuation is irrelevant in any creative writing. I think the kids are actually being TAUGHT that now: don’t worry about the grammar and punctuation and word choice and all; just focus on expressing yourself, and if no one gets it because your sentences are weird, that just means you’re REALLY expressing yourself in the Most Uniquest Way EVER. (Sorry. Sarcasm. I often forget that I can’t understand sarcasm, metaphor, or hyperbole because my brain is wired wrong, and then I end up being over-the-top sarcastic about something before I remember.)

      As for writing a new grammar guide… Could be lots of fun. Thanks for the suggestion. I always thought Lynne Truss was a bit too nice sometimes in her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I could write The Grumpy, Grouchy Old Man’s Guide to Grammar. (“Stop capitalizing the first word of the dialogue tag — and get off my lawn!”)

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  7. nancyrae4 says:

    I can’t say what the comma standard is now. I keep an eye on the books I read, and I’m still seeing plenty of commas. Personally, I like commas. They give a gentle rhythm to a sentence and a tiny pause for the reader’s brain. My brain needs all the pauses it can get!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve been trying, and I can’t make a compound sentence without a comma that looks right to me. Of course, I’m at least as old and fuddy-duddy as you are.

    Interesting – If my sentence isn’t compound, then I can add or omit the comma without making it look wrong to me, but it does seem to change the pace:

    I peeked around the corner and threw my water balloon.

    I peeked around the corner, and threw my water balloon.

    (I’m not sure if either version is incorrect, but the more I look at it the less I like the second version.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The second version doesn’t look right to me, either, but at least that comma doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

      I’m mostly joking about being old; I turn 43 on Monday. On the other hand, I was a “fuddy-duddy” even when I was 23. I was that weirdo who used full sentences with real words and stuff in chat rooms back in the mid-90s.

      Some day, common advice to writers may be, “There was this guy Vonnegut who said ‘Don’t use just the eyes part of a winky face in a sentence cos it’s just you trying to act like you went to college.'” I sincerely hope I never live to see that day.

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      • We might be there already. I’ve had to teach college seniors (pre-med majors!) how to do decimal math. They had no idea how to calculate 20% of a number. They had apparently been taught to move a decimal point back and forth, and thought all mathematical operations had to be in even multiples of 10.

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  9. Hannah G says:

    I’d use a comma, unless the sentence was already huge and full of them, but I think it’s acceptable either way. I certainly see it both ways all the time.

    Like

  10. Sheron says:

    No, no, no. You can’t back pedal and waffle over this now! You were the person that rang the bell for me and said that compound sentences have to have a comma…and every grammar book and website supported you. I ranted at my writing group (of which your first commenter D. Wallace Psach is an excellent member) making them adhere to your rules. Will I have to crawl under the table now muttering, “Nevermind?”

    We Indie authors are accused of sloppy writing…should we encourage that thinking? I am an old fuddy duddy who constantly fights my own typos, grammar confusion, sentence structure etc. but I try to do it right. I have a Masters Degree in English, but commas confuse the heck out of me. Thomas, tell it true and stick to it! Otherwise I’m out here flailing in the wind, shuttering at what other writers will do next.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, now that I’ve typed most of the snark and sarcasm and bitterness out of my system (NONE of which was directed at you, by the way), I can respond sanely to your comment:

      THANK YOU for asking me to stick to my guns, not waffle, and not encourage sloppy writing. I need that sometimes: other people telling me that they think what I do is useful and helpful and NOT crazy or stupid.

      To quote Lynne Truss: “The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”

      Liked by 1 person

  11. judyt54 says:

    In writing, the idea of long, compound sentences is often used to break up the barrage of short annoying simple sentences that Hemingway was so good at. The difference is, he used them to good effect, while other writers use them as a way to avoid the reality of commas. “He cleaned his gun. Put it in the drawer. Closed the drawer. Walked to the door. Opened it, and left.”

    It is also necessary on occasion to keep sentences on track. English is one of those languages where a misplaced comma can turn serious writing into an “ooops” very quickly.

    Lynne Truss, btw, is my hero.
    On the other side, there are people, one of them an extremely gifted poet, who seem to have no concept of how to use a comma in every day writing. It’s painful to read communications from them. Many people go too far, the other way, inserting a comma, anytime they feel the need.

    A well-written compound sentence is a joy to read, and if its done properly no one even notices that it’s an entire paragraph with no periods. =)

    My own rule of thumb is the poetic one: breath and sense dictate where the punctuation in a long sentence should go, rather than a rule that says ‘always’ or ‘never’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been relying on meaning when deciding where to put commas, and I’ve been told it’s wrong: “No one does commas anymore.” Except when they do. It’s as if they’ve taken all the commas from compound sentences and used them in run-ons instead.

      I totally agree that a comma out of place can make a sentence say something the author didn’t intend. (My current favorite example is “Let’s go, mate” versus “Let’s go mate.”)

      The whole “put a comma wherever you breathe” thing doesn’t work for me. I’ve also observed that, for many writers, that method results in something resembling what is jokingly called “the Shatner comma,” a comma added every three or so words without regard for meaning: “Why do you, even care, about punctuation? You’re not, a writer.” (Maybe this is also the source of the idea that COMMAS, not ellipses, should be inserted for “dramatic pause.” *shakes head*)

      Like

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