How to Use a Coordinating Conjunction with a Comma in a Sentence

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

Coordinating conjunctions often connect two complete thoughts in a sentence. You can remember these words by the acronym FANBOYS, which stands for For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So.

Let’s go over that by looking at this formula:

COMPLETE THOUGHT + FANBOYS + COMPLETE THOUGHT.

Here’s what that looks like in a sentence:

The cat ate the pizza, and she thought it tasted good.

“The cate at the pizza” is a complete thought, and “she thought it tasted good” is a complete thought (note that they could both stand on their own as separate sentences). The coordinating conjunction “and” joined the two complete thoughts.

Do you notice anything else about the sentence? A comma goes before the coordinating conjunction when it separates two complete thoughts. That’s the last part of our formula. Now it looks like this:

COMPLETE THOUGHT + COMMA + FANBOYS + COMPLETE THOUGHT.

Let’s look at examples for each of the FANBOYS:

For: The cat ate the pizza, for she was hungry.

And: The cat went to the restaurant, and she ate the pizza.

Nor: The cat does not like pineapple pizza, nor does she like mushroom pizza.

But: The cat doesn’t like mushroom pizza, but she ate it because it was free.

Or: The cat could eat pizza, or she could eat tacos.

Yet: The cat went to the restaurant, yet she could have had a pizza delivered.

So: The cat was really hungry, so she ate four slices of pizza.

To sum up: FANBOYS are words (called “coordinating conjunctions”) that often join two complete thoughts into one sentence. A comma goes before FANBOYS in this situation.

 

Erin Servais is a book editor, author coach, and founder of Dot and Dash LLC, an author-services company. To learn how she can help you with your next book project, check out http://www.dotanddashllc.com or email Erin@dotanddashllc.com.

Ouch! That comma splices!

Lesson: how to correctly join independent clauses

 

Take a look at this sentence.

The Martians want to look their best, they wear their green jumpsuits.

There is something wrong here. (And it’s not that the Martians think jumpsuits are high fashion.) Notice the comma between best and they? That’s called a comma splice. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?

The comma splice is a common error in sentence construction. When the parts of the sentence on each side of the comma can stand alone as separate sentences (These are called independent clauses.), you can’t use a comma to separate them.

Don’t fear. There are several remedies to the comma splice.

1. Separate into two sentences
Because independent clauses can function as separate sentences, you can use a period to separate them. Here’s how this correction looks:

The Martians want to look their best. They wear their green jumpsuits.

In some instances, it might also make sense to use a question mark to separate the independent clauses, such as in this comma splice example:

Did the Martians look silly in their green jumpsuits, yes they did.

Since the first independent clause is actually a question, you’ll want to place a question mark after it. Here is how this correction looks:

Did the Martians look silly in their green jumpsuits? Yes they did.

In other instances, you may want to use an exclamation point to separate the independent clauses, such as in this comma splice example:

The martians look ridiculous, green jumpsuits are ugly.

Because the first independent clause lends itself to more emphasis, you could use an exclamation point after it. This correction looks like this:

The martians look ridiculous! Green jumpsuits are ugly.

2. Separate with a comma and a coordinating conjunction
Coordinating conjunctions are the words and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These words join parts of a sentence together. In sentences with more than one independent clause, they work with a comma to separate the clauses. Here’s how this correction looks:

The Martians want to look their best, so they wear their green jumpsuits.

3. Separate with a semicolon
If both independent clauses deal with the same general idea, then you can separate them with a semicolon. Here’s how this correction looks:

The Martians want to look their best; they wear their green jumpsuits.

However, if the independent clauses are not about the same general idea, then the semicolon isn’t the best option. For example, take a look at this comma splice example:

The Martians wear their green jumpsuits, they eat purple custard.

The first independent clause deals with wearing clothes. The second deals with eating food. Since these two ideas are not related, a semicolon shouldn’t connect them. To make it correct, you would want to use option 1:

The Martians wear their green jumpsuits. They eat purple custard.

or option 2:

The Martians wear their green jumpsuits, and they eat purple custard.

Voilà. That’s how you fix comma splices. (Just try to stay away from Martians. I heard they’re poor dressers.)

Making a list. Checking it twice (for colons, commas, and semicolons).

Board that reads: Things to do. Number one says: Own today

Photo by Emma Matthews on Unsplash

There are three punctuation marks involved in making a list in a sentence: the comma, colon, and semicolon. Which you use depends on how complex your list is.

Comma
If you are writing a simple list, you can just insert a comma after each item. Like this:

Today I ate cookies, cookies, and more cookies.

Colon and Comma
You can also use a colon before you introduce the list’s items. In many cases, this will make the sentence more concise and make the items of the list more apparent.

Take a look at this sentence:

Roxy had three choices for lunch, which were pizza, grubs, and salamander.

You could shorten this sentence by placing a colon before your list (and using commas to separate the items). That sentence would look like this:

Roxy had three choices for lunch: pizza, grubs, and salamander.

With the help of a colon, you can also combine sentences. Here’s the original:

Ralph thought about two things. One thing he thought about was pizza. The other thing he thought about was algebra.

Here’s the new sentence:

Ralph thought about two things: pizza and algebra.

(Notice here that commas don’t separate these list items because there are only two.)

So short. So simple. Thank you, colon and comma.

Colon and Semicolon
If your list is complex, you may want to use semicolons as dividers to make each individual item easier to read. Or, as The Chicago Manual of Style says in section 6.58, “When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity.”

Here’s an example of a complex list that uses both a colon and semicolons:

The items on Martina’s Christmas list are as follows: one red, fuzzy sweater; two super-violent, awesome video games; one old, beaten-up copy of Fahrenheit 451; and six adorable, little hamsters.

The items on Martina’s list are complex because, as you’ll notice, the items contain a lot of detail and punctuation (in this case, commas) within the singular items. If we only used commas to separate the items, instead of semicolons, it would be more difficult to see where one item ends and the next one begins.

Summing up
If your list is simple, use commas to separate the items.

Example: Last night Regina saw a mouse, a wizard, and a tomato.

If your list is simple, you can also use a colon to introduce the list and commas to separate the items.

Example: Last night Regina saw: a mouse, a wizard, and a tomato.

If your list is complex, use a colon to introduce the list and semicolons to separate the items.

Example: Last night Regina saw: an old, ugly mouse; a scary-looking, grumpy wizard; and a moldy, stinky tomato.

Erin Servais is a book editor and author coach focusing on women author-entrepreneurs. To learn more about how she can help you reach your publishing goals, check out her website, Dot and Dash, or email her at Erin@dotanddashllc.com.

Parallel Sentence Structure, Or “Getting All Piet Mondrian On Your Writing”

Lesson: improving your writing by using parallelism

In grammar, a series of related words, phrases, or clauses is considered to be parallel when each item in the series has a similar structure. This could mean, for example, nouns listed with other nouns or verbs that have the same ending and tense. Learning to write with a parallel structure will make your writing sound more professional and easy to understand.

Examples

The cats, the dogs, some birds, and the rabbits had a party.

Here we have three sets of adjectives and nouns that look similar (the cats, the dogs, and the rabbits) and one that looks different (some birds). To make this sentence parallel, we need to change “some birds” to fit the other adjective and noun sets by making it “the birds.”

Now the sentence looks like:

The cats, the dogs, the birds, and the rabbits had a party.

Similarly, sentences with more than one verb sound better when they are in a parallel structure.

First, here is a sentence with verbs that are not parallel:

Today the snakes filled their day by eating a mouse, throwing up innards, and they contemplated the meaning of life.

Since two out of three verbs have the –ing ending, the sentence would sound better and would be parallel if we changed the last verb to this ending. Also, we need to get rid of the “they” since the other verbs do not have a “they”  in front of them.

Here’s what the corrected sentence would look like:

Today the snakes filled their day by eating a mouse, throwing up innards, and contemplating the meaning of life.

Likewise, if you need to write a bulleted list, such as in a business report or your resume, it’s also wise to keep parallel structure in mind.

Here is an example of a list that is not parallel:

At my last job I:

  • Counted to ten repeatedly
  • Learned how to draw narwhals
  • Sandwiches
  • Fought a demon for the right to his daughter

The third bullet, “sandwiches,” is not parallel because it does not have a verb directly after the bullet to explain what you did with the sandwiches. To make this list parallel, it should look like this:

At my last job I:

  • Counted to ten repeatedly
  • Learned how to draw narwhals
  • Fed sandwiches to the sky
  • Fought a demon for the right to his daughter

Quiz

Try rewriting these examples to put them in a parallel structure.

1. The squid seems elegant, to be phosphorescent, and low maintenance.

2. An amount of sugar, an amount of spice, and the mud make a nice pie.

3. Last quarter our product:

  • Showed increased profits
  • Enjoyed a high sales volume
  • Was only responsible for only thirty cases of hair loss

4. Running the maze in a quick manner, accurately, and skillfully is the rat’s goal.

5. Our continuing mission is: 1) to explore strange, new worlds; 2) to seek out new life and new civilizations; 3) boldly going where no man has gone before.

Answers:

1. The squid seems elegant, phosphorescent, and low maintenance.

2. An amount of sugar, an amount of spice, and an amount of mud make a nice pie.

3. Last quarter our product:

  • Showed increased profit
  • Enjoyed a high sales volume
  • Led to only thirty cases of hair loss

4. Running the maze quickly, accurately, and skillfully is the rat’s goal.

5. Our continuing mission is: 1) to explore strange, new worlds; 2) to seek out new life and new civilizations; 3) to boldly go* where no man has gone before.

* Yes, I know I used a split infinitive here. Let’s save that debate for another post, shall we?

One little endian, two little endians: Formatting dates across the globe

The proper way to format dates in America is to write month, day, comma, year. Like this:

May 27, 1950

However, as you are no doubt aware, this is the proper way to format a date in America. Different countries have different formats. And this is where we need to devote a tangent to Mr. Jonathan Swift, one of history’s most beloved satirists, the reason for which will be clear soon. (Feel free to skip this part if you want to get straight to the date discussion.)

A Swift Aside
The date format we use in America is called middle endian, but there is also the big endian and little endian formats. These terms derive from Jonathan Swift’s famous book, Gulliver’s Travels. One of the stories involves a political faction called Big Endians, people who liked to crack their eggs at the large end. The Lilliputian king considered this method too primitive and required his subjects, the Little Endians, to break their eggs at the small end. But the Big Endians rebelled.

Here is a quote from the book about these two groups:

“It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty’s Grandfather, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penalties, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. . . . It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End. Many hundred large Volumes have been published upon this Controversy: But the books of the Big Endians have been long forbidden. . . .”

And, somehow, some way, this is how we got the names for date formats; the system, itself, being called Endianness. Endianness is a system by which units are ordered based on size. In terms of calendar dates, the units are day, month, and year, with day being the smallest unit and year being the largest unit.

Little endian format
Most countries, including the vast majority of Europe, format their dates using the little endian method. This is why if you were to, say, pick up a British newspaper, you would see the date written with the day first, then the month, and then the year. As for commas, this format omits them.

Example: Hazel was born 27 May 1950.

However, I did find references that said a comma should be placed between the month and year if you are using an ordinal number (first, second, 1st, 2nd). In this case, an example would be:

Hazel was born 27th May, 1950.

Middle endian format
As we discussed earlier, America uses the middle endian format, joined by only a few other countries. In this format, the month goes first, then the day, then a comma, and then the year. Since the month is the middle-sized unit in the date, this format is called middle endian.

Example: Hazel was born May 27, 1950.

Big endian format
The international formal standard for formatting dates follows the big endian format, with the year coming first, then the month (since it is one step smaller than the year), and then the date.

Example: Hazel was born 1950 May 27th.

In the big endian format, there are no commas.

What about commas after the year?
Recently I had a comma debate with a work colleague. (If you’re not a copy editor, grammarian, or punctuation purist, this is exactly the type of conversation during which it would be easy to fall asleep. But to us, it was heated; it was enthralling; and it had just a hint of danger.) The question involved whether with a date in a sentence to include a comma after the year (when using the middle endian format).

To me, the answer was obvious: Yes, of course you put a comma there. And I prepared my list of references to back me up. To her, the answer was unclear. She also had a list of references that said it can go either way. (Grammar Girl, for one, is unfortunately on her side.) Well, I consider her references to be rogues, Grammar Girl or not.

So, it depends on what references you choose to follow. In the majority of my work, I adhere to The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, and they say a sentence with a full date should look like this:

Hazel’s birthday of May 27, 1950, was a beautiful day.