Rule One: Two independent clauses separated by a conjunction need a comma. So the following sentence (with two subjects: he and it) is punctuated correctly with a comma.
He started the car, and it made a noise.
This next sentence (with only one subject: he) is also punctuated correctly without a comma.
He started the car and drove around town for a few hours but soon got bored and went home to clean out the garage and mow the lawn.
This drives writers crazy because these examples make no visual or auditory sense. Nobody wants a comma in the first example, and everybody wants to put a comma between “hours” and “but” in the second example.
Here’s the squishy part. Technically, the comma in the second example isn’t necessary, but many editors and publishers allow authors some discretion in using commas to direct the reader to pause. So you’ll see it both ways.
Here’s more squish. Nonfiction writing is more formal and requires closer adherence to the rules, while in fiction the style is to be more “open.” This means in novels, rule number one is frequently ignored. But every book publisher has its own in-house rules. And every newspaper and magazine has its own style. No wonder most writers have given up trying to get commas right.
Then there are introductory clauses, which are completely discretionary. In an academic paper, you’ll see a comma after even the shortest introductory phrases/words:
In time, the relationship between the two variables…
In fiction, you’ll see no comma after long and complex introductory phrases:
On the morning after the big explosion in the airport hanger he packed his suitcase and headed…
Where is the logic? As an editor and writer, I try to follow the rules and consider the genre, but my first obligation is to the reader. If a comma makes the sentence easier to read, then I put it in. If a comma slows the reader down for no reason, I take it out.
L.J. Sellers is a brilliant writer and editor who can help you get your manuscript into great shape. She prefers scintillating mystery and thriller fiction by famous authors who will pay her outrageous sums of money for her sage opinions, but she'll edit any genre and work with authors to keep her services affordable.
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