Commas 101: Independent clauses

Do I, stick a comma, here? I’m, not sure. I guess I’ll just, slap one in, to be sure. I mean, a comma is just a, way, to, show the reader, where to pause, right?

This is where your editor will wear out either her delete button or her red pen, if you are lucky enough to have a patient and observant editor (few of us can be both). It is also why I’m doing a series, rather than a long, boring post on all the rules. I figure that, if you are reading this, you already like using lots of commas, which means you want things in smaller chunks. No problem!

Today’s chunk is to clarify when to or not to use a comma to link two thoughts in one sentence.

Rule #1: Use a comma to link two independent clauses, but you will need a conjunction.

A clause is a thought – a chunk of a sentence that may contain many levels or bits of information within a sentence. If it has a subject (the thing doing) and a predicate (what that thing is doing), it is an independent clause. An independent clause is a full sentence. If you can pull it out and slap a period at the end, then it is an independent clause no matter how much more is around it.

If you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you will want to shove a comma in there. It won’t read right if you don’t. But, if you take two full sentences and stick them together with just a comma, you may feel incomplete. This is because you need a conjunction to hold them together. The two sides of the sentence are too heavy without that support.

At this point, you have three choices:

  1. Make them two sentences
  2. Use a comma and a conjunction
  3. Use a semicolon

Example:

I went for a walk. I saw a squirrel.

Two perfectly respectable sentences in their own right, but if you keep writing short, choppy sentences your writing may get tiresome. Hey, let’s combine those two thoughts into one sentence!

I went for a walk, I saw a squirrel. <– does that feel “wrong” when you read it? It should. Those two independent clauses need some support to hold them together:

I went for a walk, and I saw a squirrel.

Ah, much better. See what the “and” did there? It made the second half of the sentence a DEPENDENT clause. Try pulling it out now: And I saw a squirrel. See? Not a sentence by itself anymore.

But…what if you really don’t want that “and” in there? What if you kind of liked the way it sounded the first time? Use a semicolon, it’s stronger than a comma and can handle the strain of holding together to related thoughts without a conjunction:

I went for a walk; I saw a squirrel.

 

Check out the “Comma Totter” visual in my book, The 8 Fatal Mistakes Made by Self-Publishers, available on Kindle:

Mélanie Hope is a professional speaker, author, and coach who travels the world teaching greater communication skills while making as many people laugh as possible.

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