You Don't Need That Comma

by Cherie Tucker

There are times when you must not use a comma to separate words that need to be together.  When you are writing about only two things, you don’t separate them from each other with a comma.   You wouldn’t write that you liked dogs, and cats. Nor would you say you stopped, and looked.  It’s easy to see how those commas are in the wrong place, just as it would be with I, love you.   Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, however.  One of the most unwanted commas comes before the and (or other conjunction) that joins two verbs that share the same subject.
Jim watches every football game on TV and wishes there were more.

No comma after TV.  Jim watches and wishes.  He is doing two things, and you never separate that subject from what it is doing with a single comma (see I, love you above).  If there are lots of words in the sentence before getting to the second verb, however, writers tend to think that if they don’t pause with a comma, the reader won’t breathe.
Jim watches every football game that ever appears on TV from the first kickoff of the season and wishes there were more. 
It’s still just Jim watches and wishes. There is no need for a comma before the and; the reader will continue to breathe. If the sentence reads:  He gripes about driving through all this construction and fighting with the crazy drivers, you don’t need a comma before this and either.  He gripes about only two things:  driving and fighting.  Commas aren’t necessary until he gripes about three or more.
The same rule of commas with only two things applies with that clauses as well, and these are the biggest traps for the unwary.
It was fine until Ross discovered that he had forgotten to turn on the oven and [that] the guests were ringing the doorbell.
In this case, Ross discovered two clauses that began with that, even though the second that might be omitted.  After he discovered that he forgot the oven, he also discovered thatguests were at the door.  
When you are proofing your rough draft, look closely at all the commas and see if any of them are causing separations.  Sometimes these pairs belong, together.

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 Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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