Judy Nollet
White Plume Communications

writer, instructional designer, eLearning developer

Common Comma Mistake

There's an increasingly common writing error that I've seen even in professional publications. Here's an example:

And, most people don't notice it.

What's wrong in that sentence?

Perhaps you heard the long-lost voice of a former teacher in your head saying you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. But that is not the problem. Contrary to what so many of us learned in school, the rules of grammar do not prohibit starting a sentence with and or but. (However, it's not a good idea to start too many sentences that way, because it makes writing seem simplistic and repetitive.)

Punctuation rules do prohibit putting a comma after that conjunction when it's directly followed by an independent clause (that is, a phrase that could stand on its own as a complete sentence). So to be correct, the example sentence should be: "And most people don't notice it."

This should be easy to remember, since no literate adult would put the comma after the conjunction within a compound sentence. The comma belongs before the conjunction. That comma is not moved just because the compound is split. For example:

He enjoys reading electronic books, but she still prefers the old-fashioned paper kind.
He enjoys reading electronic books. But she still prefers the old-fashioned paper kind.

Perhaps some of the confusion arises because a comma should appear after the conjunction when it's one of a pair used to set off a phrase or dependent clause, as in:

And, when all is said and done, what matters most is that your meaning is clear.

In other words, when punctuation rules would call for a comma after the conjunction if it were part of a compound sentence, then keep that comma if you divide the sentence at the conjunction. But do not add a comma after a conjunction that begins a simple sentence.

Rule Reminders

  • Use a comma in a compound sentence, and put it before the conjunction.
  • But don't use a comma when you begin a simple sentence with a conjunction.
  • Still, for more complicated sentences, remember that commas should be used to set off phrases according to standard punctuation rules.

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Copyright Judy Nollet, White Plume Communications. 
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