There are enough rules about when to use a comma and when not to use one to drive any normal person insane. Instead of allowing that punctuation mark to drive me to insanity, I decided to give it a more in-depth look. I’m going to examine the use of commas with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions.
Independent and Dependent Clauses
First, I should probably explain a little about these clauses. An independent clause is a clause that can stand by itself as a sentence. It contains a subject and a predicate, and it expresses a complete thought.
A dependent clause does not express a complete thought. It does not contain a subject and a predicate; therefore, it cannot stand alone as a sentence. A dependent clause is also known as a subordinating clause.
Did anyone besides me use to watch “Schoolhouse Rock” on Saturday mornings? Conjunction Junction is a cute and memorable introduction to conjunctions.
The coordinating conjunctions are easy to remember. What do coordinating conjunctions do? They join words to words, phrases to phrases, and clauses to clauses. These words can easily be committed to memory if you use the acronym FANBOYS – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
When a coordinating conjunction (one of the FANBOYS) connects two independent clauses, a comma is needed. If the clauses are short, the comma may be omitted.
MaryAnn has a specific route she jogs each day, but Michael rides his bike somewhere different each time he takes it out.
We can play or we can nap. (Using a comma is up to the one who wrote it.)
Since and is a coordinating conjunction, I feel the Oxford (or serial) comma should be mentioned briefly. Use of the Oxford comma is recommended when writing fiction, yet is isn’t recommended in newspaper-style articles. To me, that is confusing. If it is recommended for one style of writing, it should be recommended for all of them. That is just my opinion though.
The American flag is red, white and blue. (no serial comma)
The American flag is red, white, and blue. (serial comma used)
I believe that the serial comma makes the sentence much clearer. Check out the following examples from The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars page:
She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice-president. (no serial comma)
Without the serial comma, it says that her parents are the president and vice-president.
She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice-president. (serial comma used)
When the serial comma is used, she is taking a picture of her parents with the president and the vice-president.
Click on the link to the above page to see more examples.
There is no easy trick to remember the following words. I wish there were.
after, although, as, as if, as long as, as though, because, before, even if, even though, if, if only, in order that, now that, once, rather than, since, so that, than, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, while
A subordinating conjunction (sometimes called a dependent word or subordinator) comes at the beginning of a subordinate (or dependent) clause and establishes the relationship between the dependent clause and the rest of the sentence. It also turns the clause into something that depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning.
So, when do you use a comma with subordinating conjunctions?
If your sentence begins with a subordinate clause, then a comma is necessary.
If you want to go to church, give me a call.
If the subordinate clause begins in the middle of the sentence, a comma is not used.
Give me a call if you want to go to church.
While and commas
There are specific rules for some of the subordinating conjunctions too. The word while is one that has a rule about when to use a comma before it and when not to. How do you know when to use one? Whether or not a comma is needed depends on how this word is used.
While can be used to mean during the time that.
Do not talk on the phone while you are at the dinner table.
In this instance, a comma is not needed.
While can also be used to mean whereas.
MaryAnn likes to jog, while Michael prefers to ride a bicycle.
In this instance, a comma is necessary.
I am probably going to be referring to this article a lot as I write and edit because I am far from perfect.