Monday, September 24, 2012

Commas and Clauses


David Powers King's blog post about commas had me thanking the universe another writer was as crazy about commas as I am. (Crazy in a good way, David.) So I felt inspired to share the number one comma mistake I see in writing and how to correct it.

This mistake I see involves separating a "two part" sentence--the two parts involving either independent or dependent clauses.

What's the difference between the two? On its own, an independent clause can be a complete sentence, whereas a dependent clause cannot.

So let's dissect the following sentence:
  •  Mary had a little lamb and ate him for dinner. (Yes, I had a stroke of genius with this one.)

"Mary had a little lamb" is an independent clause because it has a subject and a verb, therefore making it a complete sentence in its own right.

"ate him for dinner" is a dependent clause because it can't stand alone as its own sentence.

When you have a sentence in "independent clause, dependent clause order," you DON'T NEED A COMMA to separate the clauses. So the example I have above is punctuated correctly. (EDIT: The exception to this rule is in cases where you have extreme contrast between the clauses, like when the dependent clause is preceded by "but," "although," or "except"--then you'd use a comma to separate the clauses.)

However, when you have TWO independent clauses in a sentence, they need separation by a comma.

For example:

  • Mary had a little lamb, and she ate him for dinner.

The addition of "she" gave the second half of the sentence its subject, therefore making it an independent clause and justifying the dividing comma.

HOWEVER, exceptions to "two independent clause comma" rule may be granted for sentences short enough that a comma would muddle their appearance. If I had the above example sentence in my novel (please let that never happen!), I probably wouldn't use the comma because that sentence is so brief.

So now let's flop things around. What if we started a sentence with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause? In all cases, you'd need a comma to separate the clauses. Remember, dependent clauses depend upon the other part of the sentence for complete meaning and can't stand alone. Here are some examples:

  • Eating him for dinner, Mary had a little lamb.
  • If Mary had a little lamb, she would eat him for dinner.
  • When Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.
  • As Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner. 
  • Because Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.

There is no exception to this rule. No matter how brief the sentence, you must use a comma.

Hopefully this helps in your quest to conquer the confusing comma. May the grammar gods be with you!

26 comments:

  1. I think you need to teach a class :) And I LOVE the picture...and the song.

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    1. I think YOU should! I loved your writing advice about setting the other day. I won't forget it! :-)

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  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Kathryn, and this is a great expounding of the tip of the proverbial iceberg I tried to tackle. :)

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    1. Yes, it's insane how many rules revolve around this simple punctuation mark! Thanks for stopping by, David!

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  3. DPK's post on commas was excellent, but I don't think he was the inspiration for this post. Ahem. :)

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    1. Hahaha. I really don't remember commas being an issue in your MS! I was too caught up in Theron, and then Kai. *sighs*

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  4. oh God, I've screwed up, BIG time. LOL. But at least now I know, phew! I can go fix it. Thank you!

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    1. Haha. I'm sure it can't be that bad, but I'm glad I could be of some help. :-)

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  5. Uh yeah...I'm sure I have MANY comma mistakes in my MS. LOL!

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    1. Wrong! I'm currently reading your MS, and you do not have comma problems. So there!

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  6. I'll just hand my books for you to edit. :)

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    1. You write very cleanly, my dear. And you have a fabulous editor!

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  7. I briefly read David's post. This is an awesome post, Kathryn! I agree with Angela, you should teach a class to all of us writers who are in the blogosphere.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Livia. And I'd be happy to teach a "class." I'm always looking for blog ideas. Let me know if there's something you want to learn more about. If I don't know, I'll have fun researching! (Writer nerd alert.)

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  8. A post for me:) YOU ARE AMAZING, and that's the truth! And using Mary had a little lamb-super fun. I'm pretty sure we'll never see those sentences in your MS, not matter how appropriately punctuated.

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    1. Maybe I'll write a post-apocalyptic Mary Had a Little Lamb. Then again, nah... :-)

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  9. Hey! So Sara Larson mentioned your name in a conversation we were having, and I was like, "Is that the girl that went to dinner with us at Storymakers? She was awesome!"

    I sat next to you, don't know if you remember, but anyway it was so awesome to look you up and see that you've landed an agent and are on your way to great things!

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    1. Renee, yes I definitely remember you. And you're my 100th follower. How cool is that?!

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    2. Congratulations on your 100 followers! *Throws confetti and smiles*

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  10. Great post! I agree with Angela - you should teach a class!

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    1. Thanks, E.D. I'd love to teach a class. Any ideas? More about commas?

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  11. This is wonderful! I see that mistake all the time. Love your cartoon, too. Hilarious!

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    1. Thanks, Caryn! I can thank my writer dad and a grueling class of technical English in college for commas *mostly* making sense for me. :-)

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