If this post’s title brought back memories of heated arguments over the Oxford comma, no worries. This is a comma-friendly space.
Commas make whatever you write easier to read by inserting pauses and setting things apart.
They help make each sentence sound in the reader’s head the way it sounds in yours.
But one question keeps popping up: “Does the comma go before or after but?”
You wouldn’t think “but comma rules” would be a thing, but one rule doesn’t fit all the possible situations involving commas and conjunctions.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to sort it all out.
Comma Before or After But? Follow These Guidelines
You’re not the only writer who’s gotten confused over the use of commas with conjunctions. It helps to know when you need them and where they should go.
This post answers both questions, so you can get back to writing with confidence.
Rules for commas aren’t supposed to be complicated, after all. The aim here is to show their simplicity and make it clear how and when to use them.
When do you put a comma before but?
The comma goes before but when we’re joining two independent clauses.
- I ran to the store for fresh ginger root, but they didn’t have any.
- He wanted to adopt the dog, but he couldn’t afford to.
- She’s written to the governor, but she doesn’t expect a reply.
Independent clauses are those that can stand alone. Every independent clause has a subject and a verb. The two clauses joined in the above examples could be separated to create two complete sentences.
Dependent clauses, on the other hand, cannot stand alone as complete sentences because they don’t have a subject noun, as you’ll see in the next examples. When you join an independent clause with a dependent one, you don’t need a comma.
- I went to the store but forgot to bring my list.
- She seriously considered adopting a ferret but decided not to.
- His following is small but not insignificant.
Each of the above sentences begins with an independent clause with a subject noun and a verb. The word “but” joins that independent clause with a dependent one:
- “Forgot to bring my list”
- “Decided not to”
- “Not insignificant”
None of these can stand alone as complete sentences because none of them have a subject noun. One of them has neither a subject noun nor a verb. Independent clauses have both.
If you replaced the comma and the word “but” with a period, you would not have two complete sentences.
Since they can’t stand alone, you don’t need a comma to join them to the independent clause. The conjunction itself is enough.
More Examples of Commas Before Conjunctions
The word but isn’t the only conjunction that gets a comma before it when it joins two independent clauses. With “and” and “or,” the same rules apply, as you’ll see in the following examples:
With a comma (independent clause + independent clause):
- He went golfing at his favorite course, and she met up with some friends.
- You can go with us to the party, or you can stay home and tidy up the living room.
Without a comma (independent clause + dependent clause):
- They wandered off together and got lost.
- I’ll take these cookies to the party or eat them at home.
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When is it okay to omit the comma between independent clauses?
If the independent clauses are very short and simple, it’s okay to leave the comma out.
- He went golfing and I read my book.
- He studied psychology and she studied law.
- I wore red and she wore white.
While commas aren’t required here, adding them doesn’t make the sentence incorrect. If you want that implied pause to break up the sentence, throw it in. If you don’t feel you need it, leave it out.
When To Use A Comma After But
The only time you’ll need a comma after but is when you add an “interrupter” right after it. These break up the sentence to create emphasis or to show emotion or tone.
Take them out, and the meaning of your sentence doesn’t change. Here are some examples:
- But, of course, you already knew that.
- But, seriously, you ought to go and see.
- But, sometimes, it’s necessary to shout.
- But, and this is important, I didn’t hear the door open until after 2 am.
- But, to be honest, I never really trusted him.
Every interrupter is set off with commas, whether it comes after “or,” “but,” or “and.” Try reading these clauses without them.
- But and this is important I didn’t hear the door until after 2 am.
- And if you must know I’m on my way out of here.
- Or and stop me if this is impertinent you could come with me.
With shorter clauses, you might not get confused as to its meaning. But commas force the reader to pause just enough to make your sentence and its meaning clearer.
In this and other cases, commas that set things off help the reader recognize content that isn’t essential to a sentence’s meaning.
- The pale green cake that she left on the kitchen table is the one you want.
- The pale green cake, which she left on the kitchen table, is the one you want.
Don’t let “but comma rules” scare you.
Now that you have a better understanding of the rules about commas and conjunctions (and, or, and but), you can use them with confidence.
And if anyone asks for clarification, you can help them understand better, too.
Will we always use commas to separate two independent clauses? No idea. Grammar rules can change if modern usage normalizes breaking them. Think of how often you run across sentences that end in a preposition.
But punctuation rules are different. And commas are there to improve clarity and flow. May your sentences be shining examples of both.