FANBOYS and commas

It’s funny what an odd comma will set off. I saw a comma after a coordinating conjunction on the front page today, and this post is what resulted. Bear with me while I lay the groundwork.

The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. That spells FANBOYS. The words can connect words, phrases or clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions because they join equal things.

The problem that coordinating conjunctions give us is in punctuation. If you write a compound sentence with the clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, usually put a comma after the first clause and before the conjunction:

Duke is a private institution, and its campus is private property.

If the clauses are brief, you can drop the comma, most writing guides say.

Keep your head up and stay the course.

Newspaper style varies from academic style on commas and items in a series. In newspapers, we drop the comma just before the coordinating conjunction:

Stir in sugar, oil, beaten eggs and vanilla.

You have probably heard that you should not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Piffle! You shouldn’t begin every sentence with a conjunction, but you can use the conjunctions sometimes. But don’t put a comma after the conjunction. The coordinating conjunctions are not like transitional words, such as for example, however or meanwhile. Here is the comma from today’s paper that set me off. It’s wrong:

Or, you can find it online now at www.newsobserver.com.

Let me say again: Do not use a comma after the coordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence.

A site called Grammar Bytes has a good page on coordinating conjunctions. Also check out the Tongue Untied, a University of Oregon site, and the Guide to Grammar and Writing page on conjunctions.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.