Comma After “But” and Other Conjunctions: Do the Old Rules Still Rule?

grammar

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of writing with—what seems to me—misplaced commas used with conjunctions. Granted, most of these sightings appear on social media, where grammar and punctuation apparently don’t matter much. Still, it made me wonder whether the rules surrounding commas and conjunctions are starting to bend a little, even in professional writing. True to form, I got right on it, researching what other writers and grammar gurus think.

What I discovered wasn’t surprising: everyone has an opinion. What I gleaned, though, is that the rules for using commas with conjunctions aren’t hard and fast today. In fact, there are times when they don’t make good writing sense. Check out which old rules still apply and which appear to have moved on:

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses:

Example: John decided to travel to Europe in the spring, but he wanted to keep his plans a secret.

  • Old rule: The comma precedes the conjunction when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same, but some authorities say it’s okay, even recommended, to leave off the commas for very short clauses if no confusion results.

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses that contain parenthetical or descriptive phrases:

Example: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday, and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

  • Old rule: A comma should separate two independent clauses as well as set off descriptive phrases from the rest of the sentence.
  • New rule: Although the above example is still technically correct, three commas so close together makes the sentence look cluttered. One solution is to remove the comma before the conjunction, along with the second she, so that you no longer have two independent clauses: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday and, given her knack for procrastinating, might not get back to you until Monday. Another option is to substitute a semicolon for the comma after the first independent clause: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday; and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

Commas/conjunctions without independent clauses:

Example: He didn’t ask any questions or raise any concerns.

  • Old rule: No comma before or after the conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same. For long sentences where a pause becomes necessary, place a comma before the conjunction.

Commas/conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence:

Example: I didn’t get the job. So what do I do now?

  • Old rule: No comma is necessary.
  • New rule: A comma after the conjunction is useful to show a pause or a lingering of thought, if that’s the writer’s intent.

To sum up, commas usually still have a place beside conjunctions, though not always in the spot you might think. Of course, my theory on commas remains unchanged: don’t use them if you don’t have to. It’ll make your writing cleaner and smoother. Best advice? When using commas, use good judgment.

For more information on commas, check out my blog post For the Love of Commas, Don’t Overuse Them.

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