Commas and Independent Clauses: A Creative Opening

Door Open

The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape. —The Elements of Style*

Chapter 6 in The Chicago Manual of Style lays out the rules for conventional comma usage, and you’ll see a lot of those rules reflected here and elsewhere in published prose. The comma before “and you’ll see” in the previous sentence is one such comma—and the subject of this post.

The Conventional Rule

A comma is normally placed before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, so, yet) that joins two independent subject-verb clauses—that is, clauses that could stand on their own as complete sentences.

I kept a composition book on my writing desk, but its pages remained blank.

This comma has always been more of a convention than a rule: the meaning of a sentence is usually clear without it.

Nonetheless, each edition of The Elements of Style dating back to the very first (privately printed for William Strunk Jr. in 1918, long before it became Strunk & White) recommends this comma, and it has been explicitly recommended by Chicago since the 11th edition of the Manual (in 1949). In the 17th edition, the rule is stated in paragraph 6.22.

So a lot of editors look for these commas and add any that are missing. Such commas do help to signal sentence structure (and prevent the occasional misreading), and even style guides that don’t explicitly recommend them generally use them in their own prose.†

Open Punctuation: A Creative Choice

In practice, there’s always room for flexibility in comma usage. (For example, the comma after “In practice,” used here to emphasize a rhetorical shift, could be omitted.) And because commas affect both pacing and tone, editors should get a feel for a writer’s style before making too many decisions about them. In a novel or a story or other creative work, this is particularly important.

Some types of creative writing will benefit from close punctuation, in which commas are used to mark each grammatical division (and sometimes each pause) within a sentence. This approach, the default mode for formal prose, can lend a thoughtful or analytical feel to a text.

In other cases, open punctuation may be preferred. Open punctuation, in which commas that aren’t needed for comprehension are subject to being omitted, can be used if a faster pace is desired or for stream of consciousness or impressionistic writing.

In an open punctuation style many types of commas are candidates for omission. Commas between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction will be among the first to go.

A Farewell to Commas

One of the most successful practitioners of an open punctuation style was Ernest Hemingway. Most people remember him for his short, blunt, declarative sentences, but there was also an absence of commas that was novel for its time.‡

Exhibit A, from the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms (1929):

The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Notice the absence of commas between clauses—and what happens as a result. The breeze, evident only from the movement of the leaves, is brought to our attention by a pair of commas that occur in the middle of a long sentence that is otherwise entirely unpunctuated.

A copyeditor might have intervened as follows:

The trunks of the trees, too, were dusty, and the leaves fell early that year, and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching—and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

The edited version helps the reader sort out the long sentence, but the breeze—and the leaves that it stirs as they fall to the ground in the wake of the passing army—maybe loses a little of the spectral significance that it has in the original version.

After Modernism

Today’s writers don’t need to look to the likes of Hemingway or James Joyce (and the unpunctuated last chapter in Ulysses)—or Gertrude Stein, whose style occasionally resembled Hemingway’s (or vice versa). Life now imitates art, and punctuation, as in speech, is reserved by many writers for emphasis alone, at least in day-to-day communications.

But in today’s published fiction, a relatively close punctuation style seems to be the norm. Or is it?

For this post I decided to check my assumptions by reading three highly regarded pieces of writing chosen at random—or almost so: they were all recommended to me recently.

First, Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies,” reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2017 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). In this story I spotted four instances of a comma missing between independent clauses joined by a conjunction—but not until more than halfway in, and not before the two fundamentally opposed protagonists have begun to open up to each other (and the clauses are short). That makes sense in a story that focuses on a university professor who sometimes tells people she teaches English because it’s easier than saying gender and women’s studies. (The story also features semicolons, a litmus test for how a writer—or a copyeditor—feels about punctuation.)

Next, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (New York: Doubleday, 2016). The commas in Whitehead’s novel are relatively standard, but between independent clauses joined by a conjunction, usage varies: often a comma will appear, but not always. Maybe we aren’t meant to find any logic: a deceptively fluid style seems to suit the nature of the events in this deeply unsettling and scene-shifting book. (Semicolons show up here and there as if to suggest that a certain logic is possible, if unreliable.)

Finally, Crudo, by Olivia Laing (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018). Laing’s short novel uses commas in most of the mandatory-for-clarity scenarios, but they are frequently absent between independent clauses joined by a conjunction (and more likely to appear before a “but” than an “and”). Then again, Laing doesn’t even use conjunctions half the time, favoring comma splices instead. (And I can’t recall a single semicolon—though once, when an Oxford comma appears, the narrator makes a point of reminding us that it’s not hers; see p. 59.)

As you can see from these three works of fiction, comma usage will depend on narrative voice and creative preferences. When it comes to commas between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, writers and editors will want to remain open to the creative possibilities.**

* This example illustrating correct comma usage has appeared in every edition of Strunk & White’s classic text.

† Neither New Hart’s Rules (2nd ed., Oxford, 2014) nor Butcher’s Copy-Editing (4th ed., Cambridge, 2006)—two of the main UK style guides—state the rule as such, yet both follow it. The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, like Chicago, explicitly recommends such commas.

‡ Adam J. Calhoun provides some graphical evidence for this phenomenon. See “Punctuation in Novels,” Medium, February 15, 2016. (He also examined the punctuation in CMOS.)

** For the record, the sentence in A Farewell to Arms that immediately follows the one quoted in this post features a semicolon. Apparently Hemingway cared. (Or maybe that was his editor.)

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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9 thoughts on “Commas and Independent Clauses: A Creative Opening

    • Good question! See paragraph 14.49 in CMOS 17: “If more than one footnote begins on a page, the sequence of symbols is * † ‡. Should more than three such notes appear on the same page, the symbols are doubled for the fourth to the sixth notes: ** †† ‡‡.”

  1. In what way is a semicolon “a litmus test for how a writer—or a copyeditor—feels about punctuation”? If they use (or allow) them, what does that say? And what does it say if they don’t?

    • Semicolons were much more common in the heavily punctuated novels of the nineteenth century than they are today. So maybe someone who likes semicolons is more likely to favor a more traditional (and closer) punctuation style? A good topic for further research!

  2. My creative writing tutor, told us all to forget semi colons. Modern writing gets it’s meaning from the choice of words and white space rather than punctuation.
    So don’t get hung up on punctuation. A comma indicates a short pause as do the words and, but etc. No need for commas after them. Commas before or after speech marks if a full stop is too abrupt.
    A full stop to break up ideas. No other punctuation needed, ever.

    • It’s intended as a reference to text messaging, where punctuation is often simply left out, making it more like speech than like formal prose—and a little like the experiments of Joyce et al. (The only time anyone would ever speak punctuation would be for emphasis or humor: “No, comma, I do not agree. Period.”) Perhaps I should have elaborated!

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