When students ask too many questions about commas, teachers often revert to a classic piece of advice during comma instruction: put a comma where you pause.
Before I continue, please know that I am not trying to knock teachers. They are blamed for too many things outside of their control. I know because I was one. It’s not fair to blame teachers–most of them are doing the best they can with the limited resources they have.
One of those resources is time. There’s only so many hours in the school day. And when it comes to teaching grammar, a kid’s attention span is already short, So teachers often tell students to put a comma where they pause. It’s such a common piece of advice that many adults believe it is true.
A Rule That Can’t Exist
First, there is no rule that says put a comma where you pause. Such a rule cannot exist–people don’t pause at the same places. I could speak a sentence like this
- So, teachers often revert to a classic piece of advice, when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma, where you pause.
- Or like this:
- So teachers often revert, to a classic piece of advice when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma where you pause.
Or like this:
- So teachers, often revert to a classic, piece of advice, when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma where, you pause.
And who are you to tell me how to speak? How is it possible to have a rule that can be interpreted in so many ways that it cannot be a rule.
So What is a Writer to Do?
Simple—learn the few comma rules and follow them.
When editing, I have to constantly correct the same mistake—improper use of commas and conjunctions. A recent post dealt with the word and. In it I explain that and is a conjunction, and we need to use a comma (like I just did) when the sentence on each side could stand alone. However, when I cannot separate the two clauses into separate sentences, then no comma is needed.
I also keep having to fix comma usage with but. Sometimes writers use it correctly but sometimes not. The same rule that applies with and applies with but. Use a comma when the conjunction is between two stand-alone sentences.
Sometimes writers use the comma correctly, but sometimes incorrectly (like I just did. There should be no comma, unless “Sometimes incorrectly” is a sentence). Why does this happen?
Why Do Writers Put Commas Where They Don’t Belong?
It happens because of the advice to put a comma wherever you pause. In the above sentence most people would want to pause. And pause they may. However, unless the phrase on either side of the conjunction could be a stand-alone sentence, don’t use a comma.
This is because the reader will pause naturally. But is also a signal word. It tells the reader that whatever direction the idea was headed, we just made a u-turn.
As in this sentence: I could continue writing about other conjunctions and how some of them, such as for, can also serve as prepositions, but I won’t.
If you have any additional thoughts about conjunctions, let me know. And if you are interested in the history of the ampersand, check out this post.