April 30, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: commas and independent clauses

Posted in comma before and, commas, independent clauses and commas at 5:53 am by dlseltzer

Oh commas, some people like them, and some people hate them. But what would we do without them? I’ve been reviewing proposals lately, so you can guess where I am going with this, I’m sure. I’ve written about commas innumerable times, but call me an optimist—I believe that if I can explain it just right, then everyone will catch on, and the misuse of commas won’t be so pervasive. It’s just that I haven’t explained it just right yet (Although, I must say that, looking back over some discussions, some of my explanations were pretty darn good.) But what else could it be?

So today, I want to review commas separating clauses. Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Points if you can identify the source of that.

A clause is a group of words which contains a subject and a verb.

An independent clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence. This is an independent clause:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. (Albert Einstein)

A dependent clause also has a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand its own. Something is missing that keeps us from understanding the meaning. It needs an independent clause. This is an example of a dependent clause:

If we knew what it was we were doing

It has a subject, ‘we’ and a verb, ‘knew,’ but it can’t stand on its own. It is dependent on an independent clause to give it meaning.

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (attributed to Albert Einstein)

Adding an independent clause clarifies the meaning. Here’s another example of an independent clause and a dependent clause (I’m in an Albert Einstein frame of mind):

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. (Albert Einstein)

“when we created them” is the dependent clause.

Now, you might ask, “What the heck does this have to do with commas?” Well, what I want to talk about is using a comma with two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions include “and, but, or, not, yet, for, and so.” Where I see the most problems is with the conjunction, ‘and,’ so that’s what I want to talk about. And this is what I want say:

When using ‘and’ to separate two independent clauses, USE A COMMA!

Here are some examples:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. (Albert Einstein)

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. (Albert Einstein)

Remember, two independent clauses separated by ‘and,’ USE A COMMA.

So what if there is one independent clause and a phrase or group of words separated by ‘and’? DON’T USE A COMMA!

Here are some examples:

It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely. (Albert Einstein)

(Now, he’s just breaking my heart.)

The value of a man should be seen in what he gives and not in what he has been able to receive. (Albert Einstein)

Remember, one independent clause and a phrase or words, DON’T USE A COMMA.

Will this one be the charm? I truly hope so. Until next time.



  1. Nick Fielden said,

    Thanks for the clear explanation.

    May I raise a question about your opening words: “Oh commas,…”?

    Is the comma appropriate? Is not a colon needed? What follows is a clause that stands on its own, commenting on their use. Surely, a mere comma is inadequate.

    Thus, “Oh commas: some people love them, and some people hate them.”

    PS “A very good place to start” are words sung by Maria (Julie Andrews) at the beginning of her singing lesson, “Doe-Ray-Me”, to the von Trapp children in the film, “The Sound of Music”. And I claim my points.

    I confess I’ve never seen the movie but have heard its songs repeatedly over the years, since it was first shown in cinemas in 1965 (I know this date too).

    • dlseltzer said,

      I think you are right about the colon. Nice catch. And consider your points claimed.

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