I’ve just been editing some work I set for my English student, and it suddenly hit me – I’d been using American English instead of Australian English. :(
Now you may think there’s no difference between the two but, I’m here to tell you, there is! And the previous sentence illustrates some of the differences.
In Australian English you only put a comma before a conjunction if it joins two, distinct clauses, both of which must be able to stand on their own as complete sentences. By definition, a complete sentence contains at least one subject and one verb.
Now let’s have a look at the following sentence – ‘She ran up the stairs, and then she went to bed.’
‘She ran up the stairs’ is a complete sentence because it has a subject [she] and a verb [ran].
The second half of the sentence is also a complete sentence because ‘she went to bed’ has a subject [she] and a verb [went].
Contrast this with ‘She ran up the stairs and went to bed.’
‘She ran up the stairs’ is a complete sentence but ‘went to bed’ is not. The subject ‘she’ may be implied but that is not enough to make ‘went to bed’ a complete sentence in its own right, hence no comma before the ‘and’.
Most sentences, however, are not simple. Going back to my initial sentence – ‘Now you may think there’s no difference between the two but, I’m here to tell you, there is!’ the main part of the sentence boils down to ‘you may think there is no difference between the two but there is!’ As you can see, ‘there is’ is not a complete sentence, so the conjunction does not have a comma in front of it.
Gah, even now I’m not sure that last paragraph is correct, despite my best efforts. And that illustrates how confusing and tricky the Australian English use of commas can be.
Aussies! A little help would be appreciated in comments!
I will continue to use Australian English commas with my Australian English student, but I will be using American English commas for my published work.
Part of the reason for that is expediency – I publish mostly to the US market. The other part, however, is that I actually find the American system more intuitive. It allows me to recreate the pauses a reader would take if, say, they were reading aloud, and I like that visceral connection between me and them.
Unfortunately, I recognize that accepting American commas whilst retaining Australia spelling is a contradiction, and probably hypocritical. :( God help my poor, addled brain. :(