5 Calls for a Comma Before “Because”

By Mark Nichol

Use of the word because as a subordinating conjunction — to link a main clause to a subordinating clause — should be simple, but a sentence’s meaning often hinges on whether it’s preceded by a comma.

A straightforward sentence such as “We’re off to see the wizard because of the wonderful things he does” requires no comma; the meaning of this sentence — “This is what we’re doing, and that is why we’re doing it” — is unambiguous. But when the sentence begins with a negative proposition, that’s not the case, as these examples show:

1. “Few adult Romanians speak English because it was forbidden during the Ceausescu era.”
This sentence, as (not) punctuated, absurdly implies a meaning of “This is not the primary reason adult Romanians speak English,” accompanied by the expectation of a follow-up sentence identifying one or more other causes for bilingual ability despite its prohibition.

But it doesn’t mean “There are more common reasons adult Romanians speak English”; it means “This is the reason few adult Romanians speak English.” Insert a comma, and the sentence tells you what, and then tells you why: “Few adult Romanians speak English, because it was forbidden during the Ceausescu era.”

2. “They don’t want to diagnose or treat Lyme disease because it is very costly to do so.”
Oh. Then why do they want to diagnose or treat Lyme disease? Again, a comma makes it clear that this sentence doesn’t serve to set up one or more alternate reasons; rather, the subordinating clause provides an explanation for the reluctance: “They don’t want to diagnose or treat Lyme disease, because it is very costly to do so.”

3. “Dementia can’t be ignored by the larger community because individuals with the disease cannot manage independently.”
Why, then, can dementia be ignored? That’s not what the sentence is trying to tell you. It’s explaining why the general populace should attend to the affliction: “Dementia can’t be ignored by the larger community, because individuals with the disease cannot manage independently.”

4. “I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties because of the risk.”
Tell me, then, why you would recommend them? (Aside: Said parties are often organized by groups of parents to deliberately expose their kids to chicken pox to get it over with.) The subordinate clause explains the statement in the main clause: “I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties, because of the risk.”

5. “The model couldn’t be applied to other sectors because it evolved to care for water, not civilization’s infrastructure.”
The implication is that the model could be applied to other sectors, but not for the reason stated. But the point is that it couldn’t be applied, and the reason follows: “The model couldn’t be applied to other sectors, because it evolved to care for water, not civilization’s infrastructure.”

See how a comma’s presence or absence can drastically change a sentence’s meaning? Sometimes, it’s important even when the sentence doesn’t begin with a negative proposition: “I know he got the biggest raise in the department because his wife told me” reads as if the writer is aware that the person got the raise because the person’s wife told the writer that the person got the raise — and the sentence turns into a Moebius strip. A comma nips this perpetual-motion machine in the bud: “I know he got the biggest raise in the department, because his wife told me.”

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38 Responses to “5 Calls for a Comma Before “Because””

  • Lee

    I must be having a moment but I do not understand these examples.

    I’m struggling to comprehend how the comma changes the sentence meaning.

  • Becky the Floridian

    Your humor tickles me.

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for the reminder.

  • sally

    I wouldn’t use a comma before ‘because’ in any of the example sentences simply because it looks clunky and doesn’t truly clarify anything for me. Instead, I’d change the sentence structure.

  • AmaT

    I agree with Sally.

  • Yvonne Canchola

    Mark,

    Thank you for the nice nuance of language brought out here. Of course, these sentences aren’t formulated perfectly and could be much improved with changed syntax. However, editors encounter situations where completely rewriting a sentence is not an option, or at least not a good one.

    It’s an editor’s task, if possible, to maintain the writer’s style as much as possible. That can still allow for rewriting a few extraordinarily clumsy sentences. But sometimes who you edit for determines whether you can allow yourself such extensive liberties with their prose. In that case, you maintain their style and prevent misunderstanding.

  • Vincent

    A comma is indeed used to pause in between a sentence.

    Mark just presented a different prospect on how to see the hidden difference of a ‘comma’

    Keep it up!

  • Mark Nichol

    Lee:

    Take the simplest of these sample sentences — “I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties because of the risk” — and read it aloud: If you attend to the lack of a comma before because, you’ll read it breathlessly and with no change in inflection, as if it were the first half of a two-part sentiment. (For example, “I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties because of the risk. I’d recommend them because it’s fun for the kids.”)

    But the insertion of the comma signals a slight change in direction — and inflection — for “because of the risk”: “I wouldn’t (minuscule beat), and here’s why (mild downward inflection).” That sentence, constructed differently, has a different meaning.

  • Lee

    Thanks Mark for the clarification.

    I think the point I was missing was that the comma helps to emphasise the subordinate clause (conjoined by because) whereas without the comma to pause the sentence, the examples could all be classified as a main clause with no correspondong subordinate clause.

    I think I’ve got it (unless my shabby explanation has just proved to all that I definitely haven’t ‘got it’).

    Regards,

    Lee

  • Joe Seydl

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but couldn’t one just ALWAYS use a comma before “because” to avoid all ambiguities?

  • Mark Nichol

    Joe:

    I advise against that strategy because, as in this sentence, there’s
    often no ambiguity. I usually omit a comma because I can. I’m happy
    because after writing this paragraph, I have saved three commas for
    another day.

  • Tadeus Prastowo

    I am not a native speaker but have been using English for quite a long time.

    I still find it difficult to get the ambiguity that you are trying to point out here.

    As for me, reading the example sentences don’t make me think about the possibility that the speaker may have a reason for doing the positive form of the main clause. And, I have never got such an impression when using English.

    Does your string of thoughts go in the following way?
    “I would not recommend chicken pox parties because of the risk.”
    |
    V
    “I would recommend chicken pox parties not because of the risk.”
    |
    V
    “I would recommend chicken pox parties because of the fun.”

  • Dave R.

    It took me until your comment “I would recommend them because…” to understand what you’re getting at.

    To me, that implies that the comma is not necessary because there is little chance of misunderstanding (and common sense is a lot more prevalent in the mores of English usage than hard-and-fast rules, unlike in other languages).

    I’m honestly not sure if you’ve just picked bad examples or are hypercorrecting.

    @Tadeus Prastowo: the idea is that these examples can be understood in two ways. “I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties because of the risk” can be understood to mean a) “Chicken pox parties are risky, and therefore I would not recommend them” or b) “I do recommend chicken pox parties, but the risk is not the reason I recommend them.”

    The problem with that is, as you will have noticed from the other comments, is that nobody would understand the examples to mean (b) unless they were having a brainfart. Meaning (b) would normally be expressed by a positive phrasing or putting the “because” clause first:

    “I recommend chicken pox parties because they’re fun, not because they’re risky”

    “Because chicken pox parties are fun, I recommend them.”

  • Dave R.

    Addendum: Firstly, excuse the double “is” in my previous post: I’ve had a few.

    A clearer case for the comma before “because”, and the only one I recommend to my students, is:

    “I knew Tony Blair would resign because my friend works at Number 10.”

    Here it’s not clear whether I knew because my friend works at Number 10 or Blair resigned because my friend works at Number 10.

    “I knew Tony Blair would resign, because my friend works at Number 10” makes clear that I knew because my friend works there, and not that Blair resigned because he was sick of working with my friend.

  • Justin W

    I can understand how these sentences are confusing and the point you are trying to make, but as some other people have said, I still do not understand how putting a comma there clarifies anything. I am a copy editor by profession and the way I always deal with such issues is to recast the sentence so that the “because” phrase comes at the beginning. I think that is the best way to remove any ambiguity because it leaves room for no other interpretation.

    Because it was forbidden during the Ceausescu era, few Romanians speak English.

    Because it is very costly to do so, they don’t want to diagnose or treat Lyme disease.

    Etc.

    As for messing with a writer’s style, I don’t think that is much of a change at all, and any writer would be perfectly willing to accept such a correction.

  • will

    howabout this one?

    “I don’t go to parties because of the liquor; I go to parties to socialize.”

    or

    “I don’t go to parties, because of the liquor. My religion prevents me from surrounding myself with such things.”

  • sergs

    Hello, everyone. I have been working for almost two years now writing articles and editing documents in an outsourcing company.

    Examples 2 and 4 provide the best explanation for the idea of putting a comma before because. At first, I cannot see the essence of doing this. I find it unnatural and rather strange to put comma before because when the sentence just flows naturally without the comma.

    I understand, though, that there are instances where the comma is warranted. Examples 2 and 4 are representatives.

  • Jon

    Unless there is a need to show an extreme contrast, a subordinate clause following an independent clause should never have a comma. These rules instruct terrible grammar. If you want to learn when to use commas, refer to any English department that explains comma usage at a website ending in “.edu” or any recently published grammar book. Otherwise, you will end up reading unhelpful articles that ignore the rules of basic grammar and teach grammatical insights based merely on style or illogical whims. Because of that, there’s little to no logic to it, and any standards of the English language are thrown out the window.

  • Oliver Peterson

    Dave R., I think your example about Tony Blair most clearly makes the point.

    I’ve come upon this site because I’m an editor. I just wasn’t sure about the below sentence.

    “Certainly it’s healthier than someone who takes a clonazepam and Ambien cocktail every night with a doctor’s prescription because they might have trouble sleeping.”

    While I don’t think there’s any real ambiguity, it is, in fact, NOT healthier because someone has trouble sleeping. The doctor wrote a prescription, and the person takes pills because said person has trouble sleeping…

    I’m going with the comma.

  • JD

    I only got to the third example and stopped because all three were wrong. No comma is needed in any of those three sentences. The intended meaning is exactly clear, and because the expectation is no comma, adding one actually creates confusion.

  • Cherie

    I have heard that Americans are trying to eliminate commas in short sentences as much as possible. Is there any truth to that?

    I understood the examples as they were originally written and had to try to figure out what the writer said they meant without the comma. I think changing the order of the sentence makes it much clearer.

  • Michael Tevlin

    Mark,

    Thank you for your insightful posts. I am often delighted not only by the examples and corrections you provide, but also by the clear path you hack through the liana of loose language.

  • moniqa

    Though recasting the sentence seems preferable, I’d like to point out that the Chicago Manual of Style (section 6.31) supports Mark’s assertions for when to use a comma before “because,” and, therefore, the practice isn’t wrong. I wouldn’t take it on faith from a random blog or article from a writer or editor, but the fact is that at least one style guide backs this up.

  • nate

    I love what Jon said on January 27th 2012. He is totally right! I am an ESL teacher with linguistics background. I am constantly having to reprogram students who had bad English teachers. In grammar, you cannot simply put a comma where you have a pause!!! This line of thinking stems from the free writing mentality that was so pervasive during the 80s and 90s in American education systems. Now we have special classes that are taught at the University level that have been developed to reteach Americans how to write properly. As Jon wrote, all one needs to do is flip the two clauses to allow the complex sentence to have the dependent clause come first. That is the only time that you can use a comma there. It’s absurd to throw out the basic rules just because you see the need for a pause. Thanks Jon!

  • Fred

    I will add a second authoritative reference to the Chicago Manual of Style cited by Moniqua. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, copyright 2005—ISBN-13:978-0-618-60499-9—page 56, provides the following guidance:

    “because after negated verbs: When because follows a negated verb phrase, it must be preceded by a comma when the because clause explains why the event did not take place.”

    Sentence examples are then presented that illustrate the same thing Mark Nichol explained in his article. The purpose of the comma is to avoid ambiguity or misinterpretation. So, one either recasts the sentence or accepts the writer’s style by placing a comma before because.

  • Ruth

    I would be furious if an editor changed my sentence around because they personally prefer to avoid the need to determine whether a comma is needed before “because.” Learn the rule; it’s not hard.

    I’m not going to the market because of the sale; I’m going because we’re out of milk.

    I’m not going to the market, because of the sale: it’s far too crowded.

    The comma changes the meaning, clearly. ALSO — because my main point is, in the above examples, that I’m not going to the market, I don’t want someone else to change the sentence order. Use the comma, period (exclamation point!). Note that in my previous sentence, I began with the because-clause; that is because I wanted to emphasize my point in that way. Also note that I have used “because” slightly differently in the sentence preceding this one.

    These nuances are important to the good writer.

  • Ken Slater

    Ruth said it perfectly above. Do I detect someone with a background in Functional Systemic Grammar? Anyone with knowledge of the concept of theme and rheme would truly understand what she is talking about. Good writers do not just randomly plop ideas into sentences; they are where they are for a reason!

  • Ken Slater

    Clearly I am not a good writer (,) because I just botched the word order of Systemic Functional Grammar.

    No, clearly I am a good writer despite that mistake;)

  • Bill Bowling

    First of all, the word ‘because’ should be used sparingly, if at all, in building sentences. Why? It leads to what I call Overwriting. Second, the commas, even in the cases cited, are optional; in the examples above, I don’t think–my humble opinion–that the comprehensibility of these are helped or hurt either way. I do know about the ‘rule’ for negative set-ups. It’s still debatable. In each of those statements, my reading of them would not be hampered if the commas were left out. Anyway, it all seems like a bunch of anal retentive nonsense to me.

  • Bob

    The fact that there is rampant disagreement on this matter leaves only one conclusion: whatever you do, just be consistent, for you can never please everybody. (Yes, I just used the rather archaic “for” there in order to dodge the “because” issue entirely. Strangely, a comma seems necessary there[,] regardless of word choice. Then again, I didn’t know what to do with that last sentence. Oh dear.)

    Still, I may be going to grammatical hell. In transcribing and closed-captioning reality television shows (in which, alas, people rarely speak with grammar in mind), I use the following determination for when to use a comma (which generally corresponds with a difference in cadence):

    If the “because” clause explains something already known or obvious, I don’t use a comma. However, if the first part of the sentence provides new information, I use a comma before the “because” that explains that information.

    For example, let’s say Brandon is driving to Brenda’s house. In a debrief (which is recorded after the event, but in which the event is described in present tense), Brandon could say

    “I’m going to see Brenda ’cause I need to tell her something”
    or
    “I’m really afraid to see her, ’cause she won’t like what I’m going to say.”

    Generally speaking, in speech, there’s no pause before a “because” to explain something already known, but there is a slight pause after no information (to let it sink in, perhaps) before the “because” that explains it. Another way to think about it is “What question did the director ask him?” In the first example, the first half of the sentence merely echoes the question – i.e., “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” In the second, all the information is new, as the question was open-ended – i.e., “How do you feel while you’re doing this?”

    Of course, I just made all of this up, and have, through this ill logic, been insidiously eroding viewers’ writing skills for years.

  • Brandon Taylor

    Example 1:
    I want to go for a walk
    “Why?” , asked someone
    , because walking makes me stress free.

    Example 2:
    I want to go for a walk, (“Why?” , asked someone) because walking makes me stress free.

    Opinion:
    Don’t be stress. Go for a walk and think about it.

  • Mario

    It is easy, if you are joining two complete sentences and are using because in the middle, use a comma. If the second portion after because is not complete for example, no comma.

    I am going to the store. I like to go often. Two complete sentences.
    I am going to the store, because I like to go often.

    We’re off to see the wizard because of the wonderful things he does.
    No comma – We’re off to see the wizard. One sentence.
    Of the wonderful things he does. Not a sentence.

  • Jamie

    I agree with Mario. It’s the same basic principle as using a comma before “and”: Subject + Verb (,and) Subject + Verb. Subject + Verb (and) Verb.

    I drove to the store and bought a bottle of wine.
    I drove to the store, and Sam bought a bottle of wine.

    Sam bought wine because of what his parents said about it.
    Sam bought wine, because his parents said they love it.

    Those were bad examples, but it makes sense.

  • Smith

    I don’t see how commas have an effect on how you read a sentence. They may indicate a pause in a sentence, but the actual reason for that pause lies elsewhere. Their function, at least in this case, is to separate clauses within a sentence. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comma#Separation_of_clauses)

    There is also a distinct difference between “because” and “because of”. “Because” is a conjunction which requires a comma under certain rules, while “because of” forms an adverbial clause which never requires a comma, as long as it is added at the end of a sentence.

    If the intention of the comma is to introduce a pause or something like the effect of the comma that is suggested in the article, the use of a dash might be more appropriate. Using a comma would not have the desired effect on the sentence’s ambiguity, at least to those who always use comma, when “because” is a conjunction.

    When I was reading the examples, I wasn’t able to see any difference at all, until it came to me that the inserted comma was used like a dash.

    I think we have to keep in mind that English is not a standardized language. There are plenty of rules that differ regionally, while others are simply defined by personal taste. Personally, however, I find it ridiculous to castrate “but” or “because”, when they are used to separate an independent clause. As Bob stated earlier, you would never omit the comma with conjunctions such as “for” or “as”. But–there are even people who say there should never ever be a comma before a “because”.

  • Bill

    I agree with everyone who has already said something to the effect of the “ambiguity” being somewhat non-existent, and here’s why:

    Subordinate clauses essentially perform the function of an adverb–they modify the verb of the sentence, and they give a reason for the verb.

    Functionally, these subordinate clauses are no different than infinitive verb phrases or prepositional phrases that are adverbial:

    (1) He ate his lunch to make his mother happy.
    (2) He ate his lunch on the lawn.

    In (2), it could be grammatically possible that the writer has two lunches, a conventional one, and one that is sitting on his lawn, but that interpretation is silly, and so we conclude that the eating is happening on the lawn. There is no need for a “pause” here and the context makes it clear. No one (I hope) would suggest a comma go here.

    At any rate, this page made a more convincing case for commas before because:
    http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas/faq0018.html

    But I still think context will usually clear things up. Don’t get me wrong, I like thinking of the possible (and usually humorous) alternate interpretations of sentences, but I’m not about to start advocating things that are not completely necessary.

    I think a lot of these sentences could seem unclear because we are seeing them out of context.

  • Dave

    Well, Bill, the Chicago Manual of Style section reflects what the author has stated in this article. A good writer will strive to keep his work as unambiguous as possible.

  • Joe Callahan

    Each sentence could be improved without the word ‘because.’

    1. Remove “because” and use a semicolom.
    2. See #1
    3. Rewrite the sentence: Individuals with dementia cannot manage independently, so it can’t be ignored by the community.
    4. Start with the subordinate clause: Because of the risk, I wouldn’t recommend chicken pox parties .
    5. This sentence is an example of a sentence with an appositive added at the end of the sentence and not a sentence with a comma with ‘because.’

    Thanks. The sentences are much clearer when rewritten.

    PTxS

  • Alexander

    Great question, Deb! There are a few tingmrims I would avoid in stock, and they’re all for different reasons (you’re correct that bitterness is one). Here goes! Avoid anything in the cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) these fellows tend to get bitter when boiled. Cabbage tingmrims are better used raw or roasted (roasting gives them a very pleasant sweet-roasty flavor). Root vegetables: I avoid beets because of their overwhelming color and radishes because of their overwhelming flavor, anything else that is a root is pretty much fair game. Strongly flavored herbs can be overwhelming (think rosemary, oregano, sage and their relatives). Trimmings from these herbs can be used to add a distinct herbal flavor(if that’s what you want), but wait until your boiling is done and add the herb scraps to infuse for a few minutes. Also avoid peels from any above-ground veggies like squash, cucumbers and eggplant. The skin of these vegetables (well, fruit but that’s a whole different discussion) can be bitter, but more importantly they don’t have much positive flavor to contribute. If you scrape the seeds and pulp out of your squash or cucumbers, though, those tasty scraps can definitely be added to your broth mix.

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