To comma or not to comma?

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. 😦



About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

14 responses to “To comma or not to comma?

  • Colin

    I once submitted a story to some journal, and then got it back and there were lots of comments on it complaining that “I should take care to use proper grammar and spelling in my submitted work”. All the editor had done was to point out British grammar and spelling as wrong. I was mortally offended on behalf of her Majesty for such a dubious and erroneous charge. πŸ™‚


    • acflory

      -grin- I get mortally offended every time Micro$oft’s spellchecker smacks me on the wrist for ‘favourite’ and ‘neighbour’ and of course, ‘colour’. What really gets to me though is when I forget which is which!


  • EllaDee

    Surely given the global nature of the written word now grammar rules have certain expediency… guidelines… I’m pleased I’m not writing a book for anyone to edit because I do love a comma! As for American vs Australian vs English… my whole style thanks to Microsoft, spellcheck, various keyboards is a hodgepodge likely to please nobody who is truly picky about such things.


    • acflory

      I have a similar problem! With the letter ‘z’. After decades of Microsoft’s spellchecker I now no longer know which is ‘our’ way of spelling ‘realize’? ‘realise’? That damn red line makes you completely doubt yourself. Hate it. 😦


  • Candy Korman

    At the risk of complicating matters… There are different kinds of “American” punctuation. I grew up with the New York Times style book. This was largely because of my dad who used it. But now, I’m confronted with editors using the Chicago Manual as the standard.

    Before I e-published my Candy’s Monsters novellas, I had various friends copy editing/looking for typos. That’s when I discovered when & where each of them went to school had a direct impact on comma use, m-dashes and more.

    Then, there’s the Oxford comma. I love it because it prevent cannibalism. β€””Let’s eat, Grandma.” And “Lets eat Grandma.”

    I’ve decided that the 21st century is the wild, wild went of punctuation. I make it worse for myself by reading books by Brits, Australians, etc.

    LOL… I’m a mess!


  • Carrie Rubin

    I never knew there was a difference between the two. I’ve always used a comma if a conjunction joins two, distinct clauses (meaning both clauses could stand on their own). For example: His is Irish, and she is Canadian. On the other hand, the following requires no comma: He went to the store and bought a new chair. Is American English somehow different? Now I’m curious.


    • acflory

      Hmm… now I’m confused. I thought American English basically put a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’ no matter what. Gah…..-cries-


      • Carrie Rubin

        I’ve seen people do that, but I assume it’s an error. I’ve only learned to put in a comma with independent clauses. That’s what it says in Elements of Style and other books I’ve referenced. But sometimes if it’s a long sentence with 3 dependent clauses, I might throw in a comma for clarity. For example: “He went to the store and bought three shirts, but later returned them.” I don’t suppose technically the comma is needed, but it might allow for a pause if the writer wants.


        • acflory

          Now see my inner ear says there /should/ be a comma there. If punctuation is meant to provide clarity to the written word then surely it should follow the way real people ‘breathe’! Erm… even though breathing and the written word are quite different. -rolls eyes-

          Liked by 1 person

  • laurieboris

    That’s interesting. I’ve seen that usage in dialogue, where comma use can get more creative, but not as much in exposition.


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