Disclaimer: English Kinda Thing

The sole purpose of the "English Kinda Thing" is to document my attempts to correct my own mistakes in standard English usage and to share the resources I find. In no way do I attempt to teach nobody English through these blurbs--just as I intend not to teach nobody to be a neurotic and psychotic handicap in Ratology Reloaded or Down with Meds! :-)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Comma after conjunctions like "And," "But," "So"

Now that I have established to myself that it is OK to start a sentence with conjunctions, I have to figure out whether it is kosher to place a comma after conjunctions (e.g., and, but, so)--yet another incurable propensity of mine.

Based on the sources that endorse or do not fully disapprove such practice, it seems like it is OK to do it if:

1.      what follows the comma is a parenthetical sentence
2.      what follows the comma is a conditional clause
3.      The conjunction is used as a "discourse particle," which has a pragmatic function (e.g., indicating the tone, attitude) but no direct semantic meaning in the sentence--with the consensus on its definition yet to be reached

So I ran the above through my friend who is a veteran copy-editor...

While he gave me the ok on my summarization, he also recommended that, when in doubt, leave it out, and it's "best not to start too many sentences that way." (Oops... it's not me... it's my head... lol)

Interestingly, in the Cambridge dictionary, I found several official examples using the conjunction "so" as the sentence starter followed by a "comma."
  • used at the beginning of a sentence to connect it with something that has been said or has happened previously
  1. So, there I was standing at the edge of the road with only my underwear on ...
  2. So, just to finish what I was saying earlier...
  • used as a short pause, sometimes to emphasize what you are saying
  1. So, here we are again - just you and me.
  • used before you introduce a subject of conversation that is of present interest, especially when you are asking a question
  1. So, who do you think is going to win the election?
Don't know what you might think... yet, I can't help but wonder whether the section of "so conjunction (SENTENCE BEGINNING)" has always been included in the dictionary... especially after reading the discussions in the following discussion forum listed under the title of discourse particle.

The resources I found are as follows:

Discourse particle 
I find the discussions in the following forum to be extremely interesting, and decided to copy and paste  parts of the discourses here.  Beyond my wildest imagination--stimulating discussions as such could take place on what I thought was just a bad habit of my head....

Ann B. • I don't see it as being a literal need for breath, but as the desire for the pause or intonation which, regardless of 'need', is intended by the author.
Iulia D. • Intonation is meaningful, and punctuation gives clues to intonation.
John H. • I agree there is no need for these commas... In short, I don't think MOST style guides endorse this practice, but they don't condemn it.
Kathryn M. •...I think the reason is that in that example the comma is necessary to an understand of the meaning of "now". "Now I'll go by myself" clearly means "I will go by myself at this time," whereas in "Now, I'll go by myself" "now" seems to be functioning as a discourse particle with no specific connection to the time of the events. (Now, I'll go by myself. But don't think that means I've forgiven you for cancelling at the last minute.)
Kathryn M. • ...I also found it interesting that, in introducing the uses of the comma, M-W says it is "ordinarily" used, whereas in introducing all other punctuation marks it says "a _____ is used." This suggests that the M-W editors recognize that, as fashions in comma usage have changed significantly over the last century, and fragments of the old system are still in use by many, it is essentially impossible to state what is in fact correct at all times.
Iulia D. • I think the only rule that stands in grammar is that each point should be logically justified or justifiable .. There is such variety in the world, that adherence to very strict rules without allowing for flexibility, for variation, is like saying that all men should have the same height.
Kathryn M. • ..."so" seems to be used by many (well, I know I use it) as a discourse particle at times. I think "discourse particle" could appropriately be added to the M-W list, except, of course, that discourse particles aren't a part of standard written speech. However, in settings such as this--where written speech is used in a conversational mode--I believe that setting the discourse particle off with commas is, like, pretty standard.
Mim E. • Definitely, like, discourse particles should be set off by commas in the middle of a sentence, but I still resist using them after introductory conjunctions unless those Ands and Ors are being used as mild interjections, which I don't think they ever are, as Now often is.
Nick Trainor • ...Seeking to enforce a viewpoint which doesn't admit of the highly diverse ways that language is used seems quixotic. Idiosyncracy is fine, but if we didn't admit change, subtlety, nuance, and diversity then we would all be speaking as Chaucer spoke and wouldn't have learnt anything from Shakespeare, or the King James Bible, or anything that has come after... do we need to go back to Bede, or maybe Anglo-Saxon, uses of the comma? Grammatical rules are snapshots in time of how folks sought to make better ways to understand each other. Those rules change because folks find new and innovative ways to look at the world, at each other, and our relation to these things...
If we won't admit of change, then at least we all have to acknowledge the contingent nature of our position.... but 9 times out of 10 that rule is quite a young beast in terms of the lifespan of the English language... It has popped its head above the parapet for a while, but it is just as likely to get its head shot off - as has happened to other rules before it.
So, this is an argument from the contingent and, therefore, historically relativised nature of a rule against using commas in funny ways. I would hope it goes some way to give us pause for thought when we start asserting things as wrong in the face of increasingly accepted change.
I haven't argued from the viewpoint of language as communication (the place of the writer) or reception (the place of the reader) but I suspect there are strong arguments against getting wrapped up in strident assertions of right and wrong ways to use commas from these standpoints too. But, as you Americans say: I have written enough already...

Parenthetical phrases, non-essential clause
Conditional statement

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