Breathe if you need to but don’t use a comma

Did you know that Liz is our resident linguistics expert? In the new #linguisticsliz series she’ll be demystifying some common grammar and punctuation rules that people (including copywriters!) often get wrong in their marketing copy. Today it’s all about the humble comma.

At my daughter’s assembly recently, the class dressed up as pop stars and sang a song called “AAAWWUBBIS”:

“Two clauses in one sentence yeah

You combine never asking why

A comma here

A comma there

It’s a mess no-one can deny”

Tears rolled down my cheeks at the sheer hilarious genius of it. The song is designed to help them remember when to use a comma in a complex sentence. The parent next to me whispered, “I thought you just chucked a comma in whenever you needed to pause for breath?” “No, no, no, there are RULES”, I replied in despair through my tears.

Get rid of that comma!

I am often called on to proofread copy for a website or blog before it is sent to clients. My mother was a professional proofreader and I have BSc in Language Technology so I feel at home finding typos and grammatical errors. My most frequent complaint to our writers [Rin’s note: Including me!] is the number of erroneous commas that appear before conjunctions which I must unceremoniously delete.

It is a common misconception that a comma can be thrown in whenever the reader might need to breathe. But actually there are specific points in English syntax where they are required and they cannot be thrown in on a whim.

Introducing clauses

Back to “AAAWWUBBIS”… AAAWWUBBIS is an acronym for the most common subordinating conjunctions in the English language…

“Stop, stop! What on earth is a subordinating conjunction and why do I need to know?”

You use them all the time to join up two clauses in a sentence.

“Wait. What? What’s a clause?”

OK, let’s rewind a few pages of the textbook: a clause is a mini sentence containing a verb.

For example:

I have written a blog post.

I will set off to pick my children up from school.

If I want to join these two ideas together and make one of them dependent (or subordinate) to the other I need a subordinating conjunction:

  1. After
  2. Although
  3. As
  4. When
  5. While
  6. Until
  7. Because
  8. Before
  9. If
  10. Since

See what those initials spell?

Complex sentences

Using a subordinating conjunction I can then write a complex sentence containing two clauses instead of one. There are two ways I could do this:

I will set off to pick up my children from school after I have written this blog post.

After I have written this blog post, I will set off to pick my children from school.

If I choose to use a subordinating conjunction at the start of the sentence then I need a comma between the clauses. If I use the subordinating conjunction in the middle of the sentence then I must not use a comma.

That is the rule – nothing to do with breathing or pausing!

P.S. There are lots of other sentence types that require a comma. For example, when using an adverbial phrase. I will save that for next time!

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