Commas and independent clauses

Commas drive me crazy. I’m often unsure about whether my clients’ long sentences need commas. A helpful rule is finally sinking into my head. I need to place a comma before an independent clause that follows a coordinating conjunction.

What’s an independent clause?

Actually, the Comma Goes Here Lucy CrippsHere’s a nice, informative example from Actually, the Comma Goes Here by Lucy Cripps:

Each independent clause makes sense on its own, but it links very closely in theme to the other independent clause.

In the example, the phrases before and after the comma are each independent clauses.

“But” is bolded in the example to point to the importance of coordinating conjunctions like it in connecting independent clauses.

What’s a coordinating conjunction?

A coordinating conjunction—sometimes known as a coordinate conjunction— connects “elements of equal rank” in a sentence, in contrast with a subordinating conjunction that introduces “a subordinate element,” according to Words into Type.

A mnemonic—memory aid—can help you remember the main coordinating conjunctions. It’s FANBOYS.








Some people, like Erin Brenner in “The Trouble with FANBOYS” quibble about the rules for FANBOYS, I think the mnemonic remains useful as a reminder that a comma may be needed.

What if there’s a dependent clause?

Can you skip commas if a sentence consists of an independent and a dependent clause? It depends.

The following example from Actually, the Comma Goes Here both illustrates and explains the rule for when to use commas when combining an independent and a dependent clause:

If the dependent clause comes before the independent clause, we add a comma after the dependent clause.

Don’t use a comma if the dependent clause follows the independent clause.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.



MISTAKE MONDAY for February 27: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment.

Hint: Reading this paragraph out loud might help you to find the mistake that caught my eye.
Mistake Monday should to


I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for July 25: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. Ugh, this one makes the sender look uneducated, but it’s probably the result of typing too rapidly and not proofreading.
Mistake Monday your you're I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

Use a comma between consecutive adjectives?

When two consecutive adjectives modify the same noun, you’re supposed to put a comma between them. I sometimes struggle to decide if that’s appropriate. After all, there are cases when the first adjective modifies the second, as in “pale blue paper.”

So I was delighted to find this advice from Jan Venolia in Write Right!:

One way to determine whether adjectives modify the same noun (a young, energetic student) is to insert the word and between the adjectives. “Young and energetic student” makes sense. … Use a comma between adjectives only if and would be a plausible alternative.

I must bookmark this post for the next time I struggle with this issue. I hope this tip helps you, too.

To learn more about when to use a comma between consecutive adjectives, read the Grammar Girl blog’s post on “Commas with Adjectives.” The post goes into the details of coordinate adjectives versus cumulative adjectives. Those are two terms I never heard of before.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.



When to capitalize prepositions in titles

When you’re writing a heading, headline, or title using title case, when do you use initial capitals for prepositions?

Simple rule for when to capitalize prepositions

Some sources simply lower-case any shorter preposition. I like the approach taken by Jan Venolia in Write Right! She says, “Capitalize prepositions if they consist of four or more letters, or if they are connected with a preceding verb” (emphasis added by me). The second part of her rule means you’ll sometimes capitalize a shorter preposition.

Here’s her example of a preposition connected with a preceding verb: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.

More on capitalizing titles

In another clarification of the rules for initial capitals in titles, Venolia says, “Capitalize both parts of a hyphenated word in a title or headline unless it is considered as one word or is a compound numeral.”

Of course, if you’re copy-editing for your company or a client, check to see what its style guide says about capitalization. Companies may follow AP style, the Chicago Manual of Style, or one of the many other different styles out there. They may also have style guidelines customized to their own needs because the major style guides don’t go into the details needed in every industry.

Honestly, one reason that I like using sentence case for titles, headings, and headlines is that I don’t have to worry about when to capitalize. Sentence case means that you only capitalize the first word in the title, plus any proper nouns, of course.

By the way, if you’d like an online tool to help with capitalizing titles, check out the Title Case Converter. However, be aware that it might not capture exceptions to the rules, such as not capitalizing both parts of a hyphenated number.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.


My five favorite reference books for writers

A printed book is sometimes the best place to find a solution to your question about writing style, punctuation, or grammar.

Here are my five favorite reference books. I have updated this list because my favorites have changed over time, most notably with the elevation of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the “honorable mention” list.

  1. Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson. Everyone should own this small, inexpensive, easy-to-use book. I use Part II, the back of the book, the most. It lists troublesome words in alphabetical order. It’ll help you cut pretentious words and resolve problems such as deciding between “which” and “that.” Part I describes and offers solutions to problems common in everyday writing. Buy it today!
  2. Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. This book runs over 900 pages in length, so it covers just about any question you may ask. When I first published this list of favorite books, I wrote: “But it’s so darned technical I only turn to it as a last resort.” How times have changed! Now it’s the first book I turn to when tackling problems such as “Treasurys vs. Treasuries — Which is the right spelling?” I rank it behind Ross-Larson’s book only because I think Edit Yourself will be much more useful for most of my readers.
  3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn. I didn’t own this book when I first compiled my list of favorite books. Like Garner’s book, this delves more into the nuances of different grammar issues than book readers who aren’t grammar nerds.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook. If you’ve ever heard an editor say, “We follow AP style,” they’re talking about the print or online edition of this style book. I rarely check my print edition because I prefer the constantly updated online edition, which I complement with a subscription to the online Webster’s New World College Dictionary. There’s also subscription software, Styleguard, for checking adherence with this guide. (I stopped using the software for reasons described in my blog post about Styleguard.) You can follow AP style on Twitter at @APStylebook or on Facebook.
  5. The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. This book gives plain English explanations of vexing issues of grammar and more.

Honorable mention

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) was my favorite reference book for many years. If you’re writing a book or Ph.D. dissertation (as I was doing when I bought this book), rather than blog posts, articles, or other marketing pieces, this is an essential reference. It’s also useful for topics such as tables and other exhibits, which aren’t addressed by AP style. You can also subscribe online to the manual, get it integrated into PerfectIt proofreading software (which I’ve blogged about in “My three main software tools for proofreading,” and follow it on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities. Like CMOS, this book is aimed at individuals preparing manuscripts for publication. This fat classic from 1974 used to be my second “go to” reference book when flummoxed by a question of style, punctuation, or grammar. The importance of this book fell for me when I became a convert to AP style.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. If you care about good writing, you should read this classic at least once. An early edition is online at

Your favorites?

If you’re passionate about good writing, you’ve probably got a favorite reference that I’ve overlooked. Please tell me about it by answering this poll question.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Updated: November and December 2021

Top posts from 2022’s first quarter

Check out my top posts from the first quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on grammar (#1, #5), social media (#2), blogging (#3), and writing (#4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2022’s first quarter:

  1. Pronoun question: is the Fed “it” or “they”?–This is an ongoing issue. I feel strongly about the right answer, but some investment professionals feel strongly about using the other pronoun.
  2. Why I’m not using LinkedIn Creator Mode
  3. Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion
  4. Go from short to long!
  5. So at the start of a sentence

“In order to” versus “to”

Is there ever a good reason to write “in order to” instead of “to”? When I posted this poll on LinkedIn, I expected the answer to be “no.” However, I did some research and was surprised by the results.

in order to vs to image

Go with “to” most of the time

Generally, it’s better to write “to” than “in order to.”

Shorter sentences are typically easier to understand. That’s why I’ve devoted many words to suggesting how you can make your writing more concise. In fact, that’s a focus of my investment commentary webinar. I’ve given many examples of how to shorten your writing in “Word and phrase substitutions for economical writers.”

As the Doris & Bertie website says: “‘In order to’ isn’t more precise. It doesn’t provide any extra meaning – just extra wordage for your reader to trawl through to get to the important words in the sentence.”

However, there are exceptions to the rule of shorter is better.


Clarity may require “in order to”

In rare cases, “in order to” must be used for clarity. Here’s an example I found in Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook:

CLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal in order to exempt small businesses.”

UNCLEAR: “Congress modified the administration’s proposal to exempt small businesses.”

In the first sentence, it’s clear that Congress acted to exempt small businesses. The second sentence could mean that. Or, it could mean that the administration wanted to exempt small businesses and Congress acted against that.

Rhythm may benefit from “in order to”

Sometimes a sentence just sounds better with the addition of “in order to.” In response to my LinkedIn poll, Paul Bobnak gave me this example from the preamble to the U.S. constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What will YOU do?

Will you adjust your use of “in order to” after reading this post?

I will continue to ruthlessly trim most instances of “in order to” from my clients’ writing, and I will sometimes leave them in place.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.



Break your chains!

Writing with fewer words sometimes results in harder-to-understand sentences. That can be the case with noun chains—when one noun piles upon another to modify the noun at the end of the chain.

“Nouns used as adjectives often slip out of a writer’s control, producing impenetrable chains,” writes Jan Venolia in Write Right! She mentions “urban public hospital out-patient clinics” as an example of a noun chain.

The basic way to fix noun chains

To fix a noun chain, “look for the noun at the end of the chain. Move it forward and turn the other chunks into short prepositional phrases,” says Venolia.

Thus, the noun chain above would become “out-patient clinics sponsored by urban public hospitals.” The new phrase is longer than the original, but easier for the reader to understand.

More ways to fix noun chains

Raymond Ward suggests on his blog, the (new) legal writer, that hyphens can make noun chains easier to understand. “If you have a three-noun chain, the easiest solution is to hyphenate the first two nouns,” he says. For example, “cost recovery action” can become “cost-recovery action.”

Here’s another great suggestion from Ward: “If the last noun in the chain is generic, such as process, situation, activity, and the like, try deleting it to see whether any meaning has been lost.” For example, “afternoon thunderstorm activity” can become “afternoon thunderstorms.” That’s a win!

Ward also gives examples of replacing a two-noun combination with one word, changing “television antenna manufacturing facility” to “television-antenna factory.” I like how Ward thinks.

Find and break your noun chains!

When you’re writing or editing, please look for noun chains and break them when appropriate.


Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.


So at the start of a sentence

I am far from perfect in my knowledge of grammar, as I admitted in “Confessions of a grammar ignoramus.” So I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’ve been making a mistake when starting a sentence with “so.” Apparently, I shouldn’t have been putting a comma after “so” at the beginning of a sentence.

No comma

So is a good word for beginning a sentence,” says Garner’s Modern American Usage because “The shorter word affords a brisker pace” compared with words such as “however,” “additionally,” or “therefore.” Garner doesn’t specifically opine on whether to use a comma, but none of his examples use one.

The Chicago Manual of Style calls for not using a comma in most cases when “so” begins a sentence. Please note its explanation of exceptions to this rule.

chicago manual of style on so at the start of a sentence

Use comma

If you believe in using a comma after an initial “so,” you have some support. It’s a conjunctive adverb, so it must be followed by a comma, says Syelle Graves, in a guest post on “Is Starting a Sentence with ‘So’ Condescending?” on the Grammar Girl blog.

Both Microsoft’s grammar checker and Grammarly software flagged my lack of a comma after an initial “so” as a problem. However, both of those automated checkers make plenty of mistakes, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, including in “How I use Grammarly to improve my writing.” Moreover, note that the wording of Grammarly’s comment leaves open the possibility that you might not need a comma.

Grammarly so

Pick your style

You can make a case for using or skipping commas in this situation. I’m starting to skip them because my clients are fond of multi-clausal sentences. I figure that fewer commas will make their sentences easier to absorb.