To Beat A Grammarian: Commas (Part Four: Back to Basics)

To Beat a Grammarian: Commas (Part Four)


Reading books to my daughter, I’ve noticed one tricky thing about commas and printed books: their usage grows as the reader does. Does the publishing world do this on purpose, like training wheels on a bike, slowly graduating us to higher and higher levels of commas? Or, quite possibly, like a drug-addict, we get immune to them and need higher doses. Either way, their presence grows, and most often the first place they pop up is with the ever-scary sounding ‘coordinating conjunctions’ or—as the kids call it—FANBOYS.

If you didn’t know, FANBOYS are for, and, nor, but, so, yet, and so. They are connecters and are the first step in comma usage that all kids learn—and usually learn incorrectly for a lifetime. Nonetheless, it is quite simple.

1) Complete thoughts

A comma is always inserted before and almost never after FANBOYS, as per below.

I went to the store, and my friend came along.

In this line, there are two separate ideas with their own subjects and verbs. If one subject is missing, then the comma is thrown by the wayside. See:

I went to the store and bought some milk.

This is true then for the most part unless you began racking up more than two, like below.

I went to the store, bought some milk, and drank some coffee.


2) Starting a sentence with one

In most professional writing, this is forbidden. Starting a sentence with FANBOYS is tantamount to swearing, and a sharp teacher will berate the hell out of you for it, and rightful so. It shows lack of flexibility and skill, and that is why businesses and schools have adopted it. However, in the world of fiction, it doesn’t matter. With it comes a lot of headaches.

The trickiest problem arises when modifying clauses are appended. People get all confused—as do I, from time to time—when a comma should or not be tossed in. No rules are ironclad. I understand. Take these examples.

I went home. Yet no one was there.


I went home. Yet, after checking, I found no one was there.

The adverb clause that follows the second example deserves the comma to separate if from the main clause that the ‘yet’ is actually referring to. If you want to avoid the comma, you can merely toss the clause at the end of the sentence. However, this is what allows for sentence variation and one should know how to use commas in this way to help break up monotony. But always remember, that—like this sentence—a comma should not be inserted just because FANBOYS begins a sentence. Too many have made this offense—myself included.

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