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Wordsmithing: The Boogeyman Comma

Most punctuation marks live peaceably enough with us. Their rules are relatively simple, or at least few. Not so the comma.

CommaFace it. The comma is the boogeyman of punctuation marks—hiding behind nouns, peeking out of verbs, stalking you behind serial adjectives. Not only that, but bunnies and comma rules share the same genetic code for multiplying. Why couldn’t commas have gotten the long ears and cute, fluffy tails instead of more rules, rules, rules?

Well, the only way to defeat a boogeyman is to stare him down. Yep, conquer him one comma rule at a time Ahem. Starting now. So, glares ready? Here we go.

Oy, my head!

Here’s a simple rule most of us miss: Don’t use commas in compound predicates (two or more verbs, usually connected by the conjunctions and, or, nor, but, or yet, that share the same sentence subject). Like this (verbs in bold type, conjunctions in italics):

  • Sandy ate only celery and water but gained weight anyway.
  • Sandy and Samantha had eaten stacks of pancakes as young girls and had not gained an ounce or ever worried about their weight.
  • Now Sandy will never eat pancakes again nor put a celery stick in her mouth.

Note that the verbs in each sentence share the same subject: Sandy or Sandy and Samantha (a compound subject). One subject (even if it’s a compound subject) shared by two or more verbs equals a compound predicate equals no comma.

Where’s the boogeyman?

Boo! The boogeyman’s waiting for you to insert a comma. Like this:

  • Sandy ate only celery and water, but gained weight anyway.

And why do you insert a comma? Because you’re obeying a different comma rule. You’re confusing independent-clauses-joined-in-a-sentence with a-compound-predicate-in-a-sentence.

CommaBoo! The boogeyman got ya!

Uh huh, it’s beginning to be scary now that you know he’s out there, isn’t it? Stare him down, stare him down! You can do this. Remember, one comma rule at a time.

Okay, swallow hard, hold my hand, and let’s finish this.

Take a couple cleansing breaths

Join two or more independent clauses (i.e., sentences) together, and you have a “compound sentence.” Like this:

  • Two simple sentences: Sandy ate celery all day. Samantha feasted on pancakes.
  • One compound sentence: Sandy ate celery all day, but Samantha feasted on pancakes.

Aha! Did you spot that comma in front of but? Should it be there? (Don’t let the boogeyman get ya!) Yes, the comma should be there. Why? Because it’s a comma rule that when two (or more) independent clauses join to make one sentence, the clauses are brought together by a conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so, or yet) preceded by a comma.

Not so with compound predicates. Nope. Different comma rule. No comma should precede a conjunction that joins compound predicates.

Who’s gasping now?

Unless (oh no!) a comma is needed to avoid a misreading. Like this:

  • Samantha saw that tubby Sandy had entered the room and gasped. (Sandy gasped.)
  • Samantha saw that tubby Sandy had entered the room, and gasped. (Samantha gasped.)

Or (Editor’s note: This is why I hate commas.) unless you really, truly, on purpose, for a good reason, intend for the reader to pause at the comma.

All right now—fists high overhead!—you have conquered a comma rule! Want to stare down another one? Write and tell me how the boogeyman is getting the jump on you. Together, we shall overcome!

Have a comma question for Stephanie? (Or any grammar question, really.) Email her at


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