October 3, 2013
Weekly Language Usage Tips: commas with independent clauses
A quick quiz:
Which of the sentences, below, has the commas in the correct places?
1. The investigative team has complementary strengths in online program development and implementation, the conduct of clinical trials, and health services research, and is optimally positioned to carry out this important and timely project.
2. Our program is unique because it combines a comprehensive online diet and exercise program, and we will further develop the program to incorporate a pharmacist and a nurse practitioner.
I know we’ve talked about commas before, but I always give lots of rules and ways to use them. So today, I thought I would stick to just this one use since it is likely the most common error I see when reviewing proposals. Maybe this way, we can get the rule to stick.
So which is correct? The answer is sentence 2. This is the rule: in a sentence with two independent clauses (an independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand on its own as a sentence) separated by a coordinating conjunction (a small word that joins the clauses such as ‘and,’ ‘but,’ ‘yet,’ ‘or,’ etc.), a comma should go before the coordinating conjunction.
Here is a much simpler sentence to show you how this works.
The ocean is blue, and the waves crash noisily against the shoreline.
‘The ocean is blue’ is one independent clause—it can stand alone as a sentence.
‘The waves crash noisily against the shoreline’ is the other—it also can stand alone as a sentence.
They are joined by the coordinating conjunction, ‘and,’ so (‘so’ is also a coordinating conjunction) a comma is required.
So, in the quiz, above, ‘our program is unique because…’ is one independent clause, and ‘we will further develop…’ is the other, so a comma is needed before the ‘and.’
What about sentence 1? Well, ‘the investigative team has complementary strengths…’ is an independent clause, but ‘is optimally positioned…’ is not—there’s no subject there, so there should NOT be a comma.
Is that clear? Let’s try to get this rule down and cut back on comma mishaps. This is how sentence 1, should read:
The investigative team has complementary strengths in online program development and implementation, the conduct of clinical trials, and health services research and is optimally positioned to carry out this important and timely project.
NO COMMA before the second part of the sentence—it’s not an independent clause!