Knowing how and when to use a comma can be tricky.
Punctuation rules change depending on the words surrounding the potential comma – the rules in one context may not be the same as in another.
In this article, we will discover whether it’s correct to use a comma before or after but. We’ll also show you exactly how to use a comma with words like ‘however,’ ‘such as,’ ‘as well as’, and ‘so.’
Before we dive into the grammar rules around comma usage, let’s develop an understanding of clauses – sentences and grammar structures within the English language.
What are clauses?
Clauses are sentences that contain a related subject and verb.
Types of clauses
There are two types of clauses in English – independent and dependent.
Independent clauses can serve as a complete sentence. For example:
‘My bike is red.’
‘I don’t eat meat.’
The above examples are straightforward. They are complete sentences and independent clauses. They don’t need anything else.
However, you can use an independent clause like those above as part of a longer, more complex sentence, whereby they are typically followed by a dependent clause based on that first independent clause.
Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. They can only be used with another clause, which is why they’re known as ‘dependent.’
In the examples below, we’ll add a dependent clause to the independent clause examples above.
‘My bike is red, but I’d like a green one.’
‘I don’t eat meat, but my brother does.’
‘I’d like a green one’ and ‘my brother does’ are dependent because they don’t make sense when you read or speak them alone.
Some dependent clauses don’t even have a subject noun (I, you, he, she, they).
Consider the following:
‘I was going to move to Berlin but decided against it.’
‘Decided against it’ is the dependent clause. It cannot stand alone, and it does not contain a subject noun.
It doesn’t need a subject noun because we already understand from the opening independent clause that the subject is ‘I.’
Let’s further explore the nuances of using the ‘comma.’
Comma Before Or After But – what’s the deal?
In most cases, a comma comes before but. It rarely comes after, but it can; we’ll explain why later.
The comma comes before ‘but’ because the sentence contains independent clauses.
That means that both parts of the sentence (the parts before and after ‘but’) can function as standalone sentences. Let’s look at some examples.
I want a coffee, but it’s 7 pm.
‘I want a coffee.’ ‘It’s 7 pm.
The store is closed, but there’s another store down the road.
‘The store is closed.’ ‘There’s another store down the road.’
I’m tired, but I can’t sleep.
‘I’m tired.’ ‘I can’t sleep.’
The examples above contain independent clauses. ‘I want a coffee’ is a complete sentence and makes sense on its own. ‘It’s 7 pm’ is also a complete sentence and can stand alone.
The joining of the two with a ‘but,’ preceded by a comma, is known as a conjunction. The comma always comes before the but in this context.
When does a comma come after ‘but’?
The comma comes after ‘but’ when a writer uses an interrupter.
Interrupters are words and phrases that break up a sentence and are often used when writers take literary liberty (literary/poetic license).
I liked hanging out with you but, and don’t take offense, I don’t feel a connection.
I’m not a fan of coffee but, I must admit, this cappuccino is delicious.
An interrupter adds tone, emotion, or emphasis to a point.
In the coffee example above, the term ‘I must admit’ create emphasis on just how delicious the cappuccino is. In the previous example, ‘and don’t take offense’ adds a more caring tone to the declaration.
Comma before ‘because‘
Usually, there is no comma before ‘because.’
The word ‘because’ is a subordinating conjunction. It joins incomplete sentences (subordinate clauses) with a complete sentence (independent clause).
Consider a few more examples:
A: Jason went to eat because he’s hungry.
B: Jason went to eat, because he’s hungry.
A: Paula went to bed early because she had to wake up at 5 am.
B: Paula went to bed early, because she had to wake up at 5 am.
In the above examples, A is correct and B is incorrect.
‘Jason went to eat’ is the main (independent) clause – it doesn’t need anything more to be a complete sentence.
The second part – ‘..because he’s hungry’ is the subordinate clause. It requires the first part and the word ‘because’ because subordinate clauses need context.
Comma before or after ‘however‘
‘However’ is a conjunctive adverb – an adverb that serves as a conjunction, something that joins two clauses.
Conjunctive adverbs are used more often in written prose than in everyday speech.
The comma comes after however. ‘However’ is used to contrast a previous statement.
It is conjunctive in that it joins the two statements, but unlike ‘but’ or ‘because,’ ‘however’ goes at the start of a new sentence.
We were happy to receive your application. However, we don’t think you’re a great fit for this position.
All the students thought the class was going on too long. However, they forgot that the clock had stopped working.
In the above examples, you can see that the second clause contrasts the first.
Comma before ‘such as’
The term ‘such as’ is used to refer to examples based on a statement, such as:
My garden has many types of plants, such as roses, tulips, and sunflowers.
I like music from the 90s, such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead.
In the examples above, you can see that the comma comes before ‘such as.’
There are many great cities to visit in Europe, such as Paris, Berlin, and London.
There are plenty of ways to exercise every day, such as running, yoga, or weightlifting.
We use such as to provide specific examples of what we’re describing, such as when you’re listing options or examples.
Comma before ‘as well as‘
You don’t need to put a comma before ‘as well as.’
We use the phrase ‘as well as’ to add points to a statement.
We’ll have plenty of drinks at the event as well as a selection of artisan foods.
Please check your work for spelling mistakes as well as facts and punctuation.
Commas before ‘so‘
Commas appear before and after the word ‘so,’ depending on the context of use.
‘So’ is a coordinating conjunction – a type of word or phrase that connects equal clauses.
When is there a comma before ‘so’?
When the word ‘so’ joins two independent clauses (sentences that can stand alone), the comma comes before. Check out the following examples:
[They didn’t have the chocolate you wanted], so [I bought you this other one instead.]
[Peter finished the assignment first], so [he got home early.]
When is there a comma after ‘so’?
Consider the following statement:
‘So, you want to know when the comma comes after so, but you’re not sure.’
The comma comes after ‘so’ in the above example. The comma comes after so when a sentence begins with the word.
Such use of the word ‘so’ is more common in the spoken word than in formal writing.
‘So, are we ok?’
‘So, how do you feel?’
‘So, what did you decide?’
The importance of correct comma usage
A comma is a punctuation mark used in a sentence to convey its meaning more accurately. The presence of a comma or lack thereof can change the meaning of a sentence.
The comma interrupts the sentence flow so that a reader can digest each section of that sentence.
Jenny didn’t win the prize because of her lack of practice.
Jenny didn’t win the prize, because of her lack of practice.
The two sentences have different meanings. In the first, the sentence claims that Jenny’s lack of practice was not why she didn’t win. You could rephrase it as:
It wasn’t Jenny’s lack of practice that lost her the prize.
The second sentence claims that it was, in fact, her lack of practice that lost her the prize.
Given the differences in meaning, it is crucial to know which comma rule to apply to a certain sentence structure.
You may feel a little overwhelmed by all the rules surrounding comma usage. Independent and dependent clauses, conjunctions, and interrupters may seem like a lot to digest, but they come naturally with practice.
Such consideration is important for work and official documents, but we recommend grammar checking everything you write, even if it’s a diary entry.
The more exposure you have to correct and incorrect grammar usage, the easier it will be for you to write correctly without constantly checking.