Editing Tips #6: Commas and the Word But

Editing Tips #6: Commas and the Word But

I’m going to let you in on a secret: you don’t always need to use a comma before the word but.

Many of us are in the habit of putting a comma before the word but every time it appears. For reasons grammarians cannot fathom, the word but triggers the “we need to use commas to indicate a pause in our sentence” instinct that our elementary school teachers hammered into our craniums.

When do we use a comma with but? When is it unnecessary (or even wrong)?

In the sentences below, the word but is linking two independent clauses. An independent clause is a clause that can stand alone as its own sentence; it doesn’t rely on any other clauses to give it meaning. We can connect two independent clauses to create one sentence using a coordinating conjunction (such as but) and a comma.

·       I love to eat apples, but I hate to eat pears.

·       She went to the park, but she didn’t do her homework.

·       The girls went to the movies, but the boys came home early for dinner.

When part of a sentence relies on another part to give it meaning, we don’t use a comma before the conjunction (in this case, but).  We call these dependent clauses.

·       I love eating apples but not pears.

·       We always go to the movies but never to the park.

·       Yolanda ate her ice cream but didn’t eat her vegetables.

Next time you are writing a sentence with the word but, ask yourself the following question:

·       Are the two clauses I want to link with but independent, complete thoughts that can stand alone as their own sentences?

If the answer is yes, use a comma. If the answer is no, and the clause after the but requires the clause before it to make sense, do not use a comma. 

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