Short clauses can take commas

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Ron Milan wants to use a comma to separate two short clauses:

I wrote a sentence:
“Experts teach, peers comfort.”

Word creates an error unless I write
“Experts teach and peers comfort.”
“Experts teach; peers comfort.” (semi colon versus comma).  

However, I like the shorter pause by a comma.  Any rules on this?

Punctuation exists to help readers make sense of what is written, but it can also be a means of helping a reader hear the writer’s voice.

The difference between Ron’s preferred sentence and those suggested by Word is a difference of style. All three sentences are understandable, but the first conveys an introspective tone that the others lack.

Julius Caesar’s boast of Veni, vidi, vici is usually translated as I came, I saw, I conquered. The insertion of an and or of semicolons would spoil the effect by slowing it down or making it sound more prosaic than triumphant.

The Chicago Manual of Style staunchly defends the semicolon to separate independent clauses not joined by a conjunction:

Two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction are best separated by a semicolon or a period. This principle has always been the fifth major rule put forth in The Elements of Style—starting with Strunk’s original (Ithaca, NY, 1918) and continuing almost unchanged . . . through the latest (fourth) edition of Strunk and White (New York, 2000).

Strunk, however, doesn’t get the last word, not even in the offices of the CMS. When a writer queried about using a comma instead of a semicolon in a sentence with two independent clauses and no conjunction, the response was that the sentence in question did, in fact, read better with the comma. The CMS editor acknowledged that

[s]ometimes the ear is more important than the rulebook.

When choosing whether to use a comma or a semicolon, the writer must consider both clarity and desired stylistic effect.

Here’s an interesting About article on the semicolon

P.S. I just discovered that the National Geographic Manual of Style supports the comma for short clauses and no conjunction. Their example is also the Julius Caesar quotation.

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8 thoughts on “Short clauses can take commas”

  1. I noticed that I often separate clauses with a comma.

    But it appears that I am thinking in terms of verse, rather than sentences, and the commas at time provide the poetic completion of expression.

    I came
    I saw
    I conquered.

    How poetic.

    I guess I need to time my poetry, or quit timing my prose.

    I have heard poetry referred to as “higher information density” than prose.

    I have problems with the generalization
    Experts teach,
    peers comfort.”

    But the poetry and symmetry come through loud and clear.

    Brad K.

  2. For a series of short independent clauses with parallel structure (as in the Caesar example), we sometimes allow the comma.

    However, if the commas are not necessary to create a particular tone, or if the clauses are not in a series, or if the clauses are not parallel, we prefer the semi-colon, a comma with a conjunction, or a period, depending on the context.

  3. “Experts teach, peers comfort.”

    This is wrong. Two independent clauses cannot be joined together with just a comma. This error is known as a comma splice. Although some people accept joining short sentences with just a comma, it is still a comma splice.

    “Experts teach and peers comfort.”

    This is also wrong. Two independent clauses must be joined with both a comma and a conjunction.

    This sentence is missing a comma before the conjunction.

    “Experts teach, and peers comfort.”

    “Experts teach; peers comfort.”

    This is already correct.

  4. “Experts teach and peers comfort.”

    This is also wrong. Two independent clauses must be joined with both a comma and a conjunction.

    This sentence is missing a comma before the conjunction.

    “Experts teach, and peers comfort.”

    Regarding the above, I am almost sure that everything I have ever learned or read about joining to short sentences with just the conjunction is perfectly fine. One does not have to have a comma in this case…true or not?

  5. All of my grammar books say that two independent clauses can be connected with a semi-colon, a comma and conjunction, or by making two sentences. Some of them say that two SHORT independent clauses can be combined with only a comma. I have been following this rule, and I only came here to get more guidance on the meaning of “short.” I leave with no more information on that subject but with more confidence in my practice of using commas to separate two short–in my opinion–clauses. Sometimes a comma is the best way to go, despite the yelps of grammarians. My philosophy is that it’s okay to break the rule, if you know the rule.

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