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.”

Recommended for you: « »



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

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Leave a comment: