Compunction Junction: Taking the Guilt out of Ifs, Ands, and Buts

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You know you’re a good writer. You have dozens of satisfied clients and an impeccable work history. You take pride in the quality of your research and the value of every piece you write.

At the same time. . . Do you ever wonder if you’ve been putting commas in the wrong place all these years?

I think one of the things that holds people back as writers is the way they were taught grammar and mechanics in the first place. It seemed mysterious, and the stakes were low. Your teachers said that sentence structure mattered, but when push came to shove, it came down to a few red marks on an essay that may or may not have affected your grade. After a while, you probably decided just to wing it.

The problem is, less than perfect structure may be costing you quality gigs.

If you master these simple basics about conjunctions, your punctuation will improve. Why? Most comma and many semicolon errors occur because we don’t know how to punctuate with conjunctions correctly.

Subordinate Conjunctions

Subordinate conjunctions — when, although, after, before, if, since, because, and more — make an independent clause into a dependent, or subordinate, clause. Although they contain both a subject and a predicate, the subordinate clause can’t stand alone as a complete sentence; it is a sentence fragment.

Here are examples:

  • Since I can’t seem to get anything done around here, I am heading off to the coffee shop.
  • I wrote the blog post before I binge watched Game of Thrones.

The Rule: When subordinate clauses begin a sentence, they need a comma; all introductory material, including prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses, must be punctuated with a comma. However, you do not use a comma when the subordinate clause comes after the main body of the sentence.

Coordinating Conjunctions

The FANBOYS — for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so — join parts of a sentence that are equal in value and/or parallel in structure.

Compound Sentences

  • She is a creative writer, so her boyfriend makes the big bucks designing websites.

There are two or more independent clauses in a compound sentence. “She is a creative writer” and “her boyfriend makes the big bucks designing websites” could stand alone as a complete sentence of equal value.

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The Rule: When you use a coordinating conjunction to link two independent clauses, you must use a comma.

Compound Subjects or Predicates

  • James and Lucinda opened an online editing platform.
  • The writer procrastinated both by playing video games and by vacuuming every room in the house.

The first sentence contains a compound subject, “James and Lucinda”; the second has a compound predicate, “both by playing video games and by vacuuming every room in the house.”

The Rule: When you have a compound subject or compound predicate, you do not use a comma. Compound subjects and predicates must be parallel  in structure.

Conjunctive Adverbs

As the name suggests, conjunctive adverbs are adverbs that can also function as conjunctions. You know these words: however, moreover, thus, subsequently, furthermore, apparently, therefore — for starters. Sometimes called “transition words,” conjunctive adverbs link two independent clauses and tell the reader how to understand their juxtaposition.

  • The state of content writing is always in flux; moreover, it is destined to remain that way.
  • I wanted to finish the article by noon; however, I got distracted by researching the latest celebrity gossip.

The Rule: When joining two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb, you must use a semicolon.

Sometimes the conjunctive adverb functions simply as an adverb:

  • Furthermore, I never liked turkey.
  • I got distracted, however, by researching the latest celebrity gossip.

The Rule: When beginning a sentence with a conjunctive adverb, use a comma to set it off. Moreover, commas on either side are generally, but not always, used to set off a conjunctive adverb inside a sentence.

I’ll conclude with a mistake I see in published writing all too often:

  • But, I didn’t want to write for that client anymore.


This is correct:

  • But I didn’t want to write for that client anymore.
  • However, I didn’t want to write for that client anymore.

The Rule: Don’t punctuate a coordinating conjunction with a comma the way you would a conjunctive adverb. They are not the same part of speech.


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