When students ask too many questions about commas, teachers often revert to a classic piece of advice during comma instruction: put a comma where you pause. This advice leads to confusion when a writer eventually learns that isn’t a rule. So why do teachers tell students to put a comma at a pause?
Teachers do this because of a limited resource: time.
After all, there are only so many hours in the school day. And when it comes to teaching grammar, a kid’s attention span is already short, So teachers often tell students to put a comma where they pause. It’s such a common piece of advice that many adults believe it is true.
Teachers are not to blame for the things they cannot control, such as how little time they have to teach grammar. I am not trying to put down teachers because they do the best they can with limited resources. This post explores why it is not possible for this rule to exist.
Put a Comma Where You Pause is a Rule That Can’t Exist
Simply put, this rule cannot exist.
It cannot exist because not everyone pauses at the same point in a sentence. A speaker could say
So teachers often revert to a classic piece of advice, when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma, where you pause.
or like this:
So, teachers often revert to a classic piece of advice when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma where, you, pause.
or like this:
So teachers often revert, to a classic piece of advice when it comes to comma instruction–put a comma, where you pause.
Speakers pause for numerous reasons. Perhaps they want to emphasize a word or phrase. Or maybe they need to take a breathe. If each writer interprets this “rule” differently, what kind of rule would that be. Imagine if everyone interpreted what to do at a red light differently.
Why Do Writers Put Commas Where They Don’t Belong?
Writers do this because of the advice to put a comma wherever you pause. In the above sentence most people would want to pause. And pause they may. However, unless the phrase on either side of the conjunction could be a stand-alone sentence, don’t use a comma.
This is because the reader will pause naturally. But is also a signal word. It tells the reader that whatever direction the idea was headed, we just made a u-turn.
As in this sentence:
I could continue writing about other conjunctions for, can also serve as prepositions such as for, so, and yet, but I won’t.
A speaker would most likely pause after the word but. However, the comma should come before, like it does with all other conjunctions that join two independent clauses.
Another common mistake is when to use commas with the conjunction and. A recent post dealt with the word and, so if you need help with that conjunction, check it out.
So What is a Writer to Do?
Simple—learn the few comma rules and follow them.
Comma rules might seem overwhelming, but that is not because there are so many rules–six or seven, depending on how you group. The difficulty is understanding the terminology–independent clause, conjunctive adverb, non-restrictive phrases, and items of a series are a few. Once you have a conceptual understanding of what they mean, the rules are not difficult to follow.
If you have any additional thoughts about conjunctions, let me know. And if you are interested in the history of the ampersand, check out this post.