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View Full Version : The one comma "rule" that keeps me guessing



Roxxsmom
07-24-2014, 09:08 AM
I'm pretty comfortable with comma rules, and aside from occasional random typos, my punctuation rarely gets nit picked by critting buddies. But there's one thing I get some conflicting advice over: when is the second independent clause in a compound sentence short enough to allow me to drop the comma?

Here's a sentence of the type I mean (For context, "he" is my pov character, and "Nettle" is his horse):


He was almost out of money, and Nettle needed shoeing.

As far as I know, this is grammatically correct, since "Nettle needed shoeing" is an independent clause. But some critters cross out the comma there. I assume it's because "Nettle needed shoeing" is so short, omitting the comma would not cause any real confusion. But is it wrong to err on the side of caution and leave the comma in place? And if one decides to omit optional commas for very short, simple independent clauses after a coordinating conjunction, where's the cutoff? I used to leave commas out in sentences like this one, but some crittters put them in.

Bufty
07-24-2014, 01:26 PM
With small sentences I guess it comes down to context but in the illustration given if there's no comma it can create a small speed bump because the assumption is that the second phrase is also going to be something he was 'almost out of'.

King Neptune
07-24-2014, 04:24 PM
If there weren't a comma there, then I would reread a few times to be sure I wasn't missing something. I would eventually realize that the comma had been omitted, but dropping the comma would indicate that the second clause is not an independent clause, which would bring up the question of what it was.

Wilde_at_heart
07-24-2014, 05:00 PM
I actually prefer it without the comma if, as a reader, I already know Nettle is a horse.

Maryn
07-24-2014, 05:30 PM
My habit when joining two independent clauses is to omit the comma when the second one is very short, like this example presented by the OP.

But editors for my lone book inserted dozens of commas; they made no exception for shortness, even if one clause was only two words.

It's not a make-or-break situation, of course, but be aware that plenty of those who know their way around the editorial block make no exceptions to the "rule."

Maryn, who disagreed with many minor changes but not enough to argue about it

Jamesaritchie
07-24-2014, 06:45 PM
Use the comma. It's needed here. It stops confusion. Just because you know what the sentence is supposed to say does not mean readers will.

Chase
07-24-2014, 06:49 PM
He was almost out of money and Nettle needed shoeing.

When editing lines such as the example above, I figure one missing comma is a slip and suggest correction. More than two raise flags, and several tell me the writer wants the omission. Then, it never hurts to ask.

James is right; the comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound structure is always correct, yet several popular writers (Stephen King and Michael Connelly to name a couple) consistently leave it out.

When not obliged to conform to a publisher's house style, the author makes those informed decisions. :e2zipped:

Mario Mergola
07-24-2014, 08:39 PM
I'm going to take a crack at this because I am a comma-nut (I actually came to this post because I, personally, need help cutting down on commas). It's my 4th post ever on this site, so I hope I'm not overstepping, but here's my thoughts:

Keep the comma. For starters, they are two independent clauses that can function as individual sentences. "Nettle needs shoeing." can exist on its own. Obviously, it works better with the first clause because one is directly related to the other, so the "same sentence" concept works best.

"He was almost out of money and Nettle needs shoeing" (no comma) adds confusion for what is being joined - money and Nettle? No. The two that are being joined are two separate thoughts that belong together: (1) He was almost out of money, and (2) Nettle needed shoeing. Separate, but belonging together.

Finally, my one go-to rule in this case is: if they can exist separately (yes, in this case) but sound better together (yes, again), I add the comma in the same sentence.

Sorry for the long winded reply. I just didn't want to sound like a newbie because I'm new at the forum.

ScottleeSV
07-24-2014, 09:37 PM
For me that sentence is fine either way, although I think the reason some would take the comma out is simply because it sounds better without it (if you say it out loud).

guttersquid
07-24-2014, 09:41 PM
when is the second independent clause in a compound sentence short enough to allow me to drop the comma?



When omitting the comma causes no confusion.

AllenC
07-24-2014, 09:49 PM
Your version reads better.

Roxxsmom
07-24-2014, 11:30 PM
With small sentences I guess it comes down to context but in the illustration given if there's no comma it can create a small speed bump because the assumption is that the second phrase is also going to be something he was 'almost out of'.

Thanks! That makes sense. So if I'd written it: He was almost out of money and Nettle was almost out of shoes...

Which would be a bit odd, since horseshoes aren't usually referred to in that manner.

I went with the comma in the end. I'd rather err on the side of clarity. And I know it's tough to judge sentences in isolation too. So much context comes from the paragraph it's in. I don't think it would be terribly confusing without it, as it would already be established that he's just ridden into town on Nettle and is looking for work. That might be why the critter (who is a good writer, or I'd have shrugged it off) crossed the comma out. But eh, it's not a make or break kind of mistake. I was just wondering about the overall guideline about what constitutes confusing. As writers, we always know what we're trying to say, so it can be darned hard to judge how others might read something.

Bufty
07-25-2014, 01:18 PM
How on earth can it sound better without it?

Commas don't mean pause here or say this in any particular way.

Commas are to aid comprehension of what has been written - nothing more.

How you say anything is up to you, and the existence and/or positioning of commas in sentences is unknown to a listener when those sentences are heard read.


For me that sentence is fine either way, although I think the reason some would take the comma out is simply because it sounds better without it (if you say it out loud).

Maryn
07-25-2014, 05:54 PM
Alas, a great many people within a certain age range were taught in school that comma equals pause. While it is indeed customary to pause for some kinds of comma usage, this is no way to determine where a comma belongs or whether a pause is desirable.

Teachers with good intentions and poor understanding of the rules, I suspect.

Maryn, whose kids were told this by one teacher

Myrealana
07-25-2014, 06:22 PM
To me the two sentences have subtly different meanings.

"He was almost out of money, and Nettle needed shoeing." -- This means he has two problems. 1) He is out of money. 2) His horse needs shoes. While, the two may be related, they are not necessarily dependent on each other.

"He was almost out of money and Nettle needed shoeing." -- This indicates to me that the second issue is directly related to the first. His horse needs shoes, which is complicated by the fact that he is broke.

Shadow_Ferret
07-25-2014, 06:45 PM
I guess to me, the comma looks out of place. I guess I need to go review comma usage.
Alas, a great many people within a certain age range were taught in school that comma equals pause. While it is indeed customary to pause for some kinds of comma usage, this is no way to determine where a comma belongs or whether a pause is desirable.

Teachers with good intentions and poor understanding of the rules, I suspect.

Maryn, whose kids were told this by one teacherThat's unfortunately how I use commas. As pauses in a sentence. So all my sentences come out the same way I'd speak them. If I'd pause for a breath somewhere, that's where I'd place a comma.

Bufty
07-25-2014, 07:10 PM
If, by inference, you are also saying you leave a comma out if you wouldn't pause for breath, that does not bode well for the end result, Shadow.

Do try and correct that.

Mind you, you may remember more than you think you do and apply it properly without too much worry. Isolated and out-of-context cases can scupper us all as shown above and context and intent do matter.

Yeah- I think you are okay. ;)


I guess to me, the comma looks out of place. I guess I need to go review comma usage.That's unfortunately how I use commas. As pauses in a sentence. So all my sentences come out the same way I'd speak them. If I'd pause for a breath somewhere, that's where I'd place a comma.

Roxxsmom
07-25-2014, 10:19 PM
"He was almost out of money and Nettle needed shoeing." -- This indicates to me that the second issue is directly related to the first. His horse needs shoes, which is complicated by the fact that he is broke.


This is actually what I was shooting for. You have to pay someone to shoe your horse, and when you have a horse, the proper care of its feet is not an optional thing. This fellow cares about his animal, and one thing the sentence is trying to hint at (within a larger context) is that he puts the horse's needs above his own.

But I'm probably overthinking it. Funny how it's the little sentences that can do this.