by Cherie Tucker
We all still remember those little mnemonic devices
like ďi before e except after cĒ that helped us
over some of the tricky spots in our language. One I was never
taught in grade school that would have helped immensely I learned
only recently from a fifth-grader: FANBOYS. For,
And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.
This trick for remembering conjunctions, those words that join
things, will help you when you ask yourself, do I need a comma here?
If you have written two clauses (groups of words with subjects and
verbs) that could stand alone as sentences, but you want to combine
them, you join them with one of the FANBOYS. You have created a
compound sentence like this one, and compound sentences need the
comma. The comma signals to readers that what they just read is
finished but that the sentence isnít. It also prevents misreading
if there is a line break or a page turn at an awkward spot.
We drove Bill and Sam took the bus.
In this example, the reader might think that we drove both of them,
but if there were a comma after Bill, even a reader with no
grammatical knowledge would look to see what Sam did.
We drove Bill, and Sam took the bus.
Should you start a sentence with one of the FANBOYS? You may if it
isnít expected or overused or in a formal document.
you must guard against, however, is starting with one of these
conjunctions and then putting the comma after it. Writers
mistakenly feel inserting a comma there creates a pregnant pause:
Not OK: The backstroke was new to him. Yet, he came
The commas go before the FANBOYS. The only
time you want a comma after the conjunction that begins a new
sentence is when there is an interruption right after it.
OK: The backstroke was new to him. Yet, to our surprise, he came in
There will be times when you donít want a comma with
one of the FANBOYS, of course. Itís English after all. But when
commas serve to join what could be two stand-alone, complete
sentences, commas are mandatory. Thanks, Gracie, and thanks to your
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washingtonís Editing Certification program and edits