In elementary school, students are taught not to use commas before conjunctions. Therefore, use of commas before conjunctions is a common punctuation error in elementary school. However, I have learnt that there are instances where commas are placed before conjunctions to form a semantically and mechanically correct sentence. For instance, in forming a compound sentence, a comma can be inserted between two clauses and immediately followed by a conjunction.
This eliminates comma splices. Comma splices are misuse of commas in joining two independent clauses into one sentence. They usually result in incorrect sentences. Regardless of being taught the contrary, this rule seems applicable in daily conversations, and can be evidenced through the following statement made by former US president George Bush: “The tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free.” (BBC News par 13).
In this example, a comma is used before the conjunction ‘and’ to correctly connect two independent clauses namely, ‘The tyrant has fallen’ and ‘Iraq is free’ into one sentence. The use of the conjunction ‘and’ is intended to eliminate comma splices. As such, in future I intend to take maximum care in joining two related sentences with a comma by adding an appropriate conjunction.
Comma splices can also be eliminated by inserting a semi colon between two independent clauses (Watkins, Dillingham and Hiers 380 to 383). Using the example above, a semi colon can be inserted between ‘The tyrant has fallen’ and ‘Iraq is free’ to make a complete sentence as follows; ‘The tyrant has fallen; Iraq is free’.
However, I have learnt that this rule has limited applicability. This can be evidenced as follows. The clauses ‘Jane is an accomplished athlete’ and ‘Jane likes mathematics’ cannot be joined using a semi colon. This is due to the fact that the two clauses don’t express directly related ideas. Inserting a semicolon between them is likely to result in a semantically confusing sentence.
A semi colon is only used between two clauses that express directly related thoughts (Watkins, Dillingham and Hiers 230). To eliminate these errors, I intend to use a comma before conjunction in joining two clauses that do not express directly related thoughts, and use a semi colon between clauses that express directly related ideas.
The assertions above are based on the concept of the sentence. It therefore seems relevant to evaluate what constitutes a mechanically and semantically complete sentence. A complete sentence is said to be an independent clause.
I have however learnt that for a clause to be independent it ought to meet certain minimum requirements. Language students understand that an independent clause ought to have a subject and verb, and that for the sentence to be semantically complete the subject and the verb ought to portray a sound relationship (Watkins, Dillingham and Hiers 155).
However, I have learned that a sound subject-verb relationship does not necessarily lead to a semantically complete sentence. Consider the following: ‘even though he is the brightest student in class, he did not pass his exams’. This ‘sentence’ contains a sound subject-verb relationship. However, it is not mechanically and semantically complete sentence. A reader is likely to ask why he failed to pass his exams.
As such additional information is required to make the fragment semantically complete. Semantically complete version is likely to be: ‘even though he is the brightest student in class, he did not pass his exams due to indiscipline’. To eliminate such errors, I intend to revise sentences and eliminate the ‘wh’ questions such as the one identified herein.
BBC News. Iraq key players, then and now. Friday, 14 March 2008http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7297592.stm
Watkins, Floyd, William Dillingham, and John Hiers. Practical English Handbook. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Print