Navigating the gray areas in punctuation rules

Consider the following two sentences.

“Days are usually great, but, when they aren’t great, they still pass in 24 hours.”

“Every word should bring something to the table and, if it doesn’t, it should be chopped out.”

In both examples, a conjunction is connecting independent clauses. In the first, that conjunction is “but.” In the second, it’s “and.” But the “but” has a comma before it and the “and” does not. What, Liz wants to know, is the right way to handle these?

The rules for commas seem, at first glance, to be pretty clear. They state that when any of the coordinating conjunctions “and,” “but” or “so” connects two clauses that could stand alone as sentences, put a comma before the conjunction unless the whole sentence is short, simple and poses no danger of confusion. In other words, use a comma before the conjunction — or don’t.

That’s why both these sentences are punctuated correctly. It’s also why you could change your mind about both — removing the comma after “great” and inserting one after “table” — and still be correct.

Punctuation rules are full of gray areas where you can call the shots. Here are some more thoughts on navigating these gray areas.

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