And does it matter?
Following are some isolated sentences I corrected in recent proofreading gigs. What do you think – was it right or wrong for me to make the change?
Abe’s got some good ideas and a passion for fairness, but isn’t quite sure what to do with himself.
As I understood it, you use a comma only if the conjunction (but) is connecting two independent clauses (two complete sentences). “Isn’t quite sure what to do with himself” is not a complete sentence.
According to the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, I was right – sort of.
From Section 6.34,
A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate – that is, two or more verbs having the same subject, as distinct from two independent clauses – though it may occasionally be needed to avoid misreading or to indicate a pause.
Right: Kelleher tried to see the mayor but was told he was out of town. Also right: She recognized the man who entered the room, and gasped.
And according to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (1935), my standard favorite in matters of grammar, I could have left the Abe sentence as it was.
From page 5:
When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is useful if the conjunction is but.
Correction No. 2
This will relieve you of the stress of planning the menu and your friends will be more than willing to help.
Without the comma, it looks like you’re stressed over planning not only the menu but your friends, too. You have to read the sentence again to understand these are two different statements.
Inserting a tiny comma makes all the difference.
This will relieve you of the stress of planning the menu, and your friends will be more than willing to help.
General rule: If you have to read the sentence twice in order to understand it, you need to change something.
Correction No. 3
Their clothing is sorted by color and by function, the colors create a rich rainbow around the room.
This is a perfect example of a run-on sentence (or comma splice).
You could correct this sentence two ways. I chose the first.
- Their clothing is sorted by color and function, the colors creating a subdued but rich rainbow around the room.
- Their clothing is sorted by color and by function; the colors create a rich rainbow around the room.
Bottom line: As controversial as comma use is among grammar geeks, they are simply a means of clarifying our written words. If the structure of a sentence is confusing, chances are there’s either an extra comma, a misplaced comma, or the need for one.