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Consider the following sentence:

I remember the time I pushed John and he fell over.

Is that sentence correctly punctuated as written? I ask because it has no commas.

As I understand it, the phrase “the time I pushed John and he fell over” is a noun phrase with time as its head word.

However, wouldn’t the units “I pushed John” and “he fell over” each be themselves considered independent clauses?

Doesn’t this therefore demand a comma before the conjunction and, since it is being used to join two independent clauses?

That is, shouldn’t that sentence when properly punctuated be written this way?

I remember the time I pushed John, and he fell over.

1 Answer 1

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tl,dr: Don’t use a comma there.


Your analysis of the parse is correct. Here is a constituency tree of your sentence using the Stanford Parser:

(S (NP I)
   (VP remember
       (PP the time
           (S (S (NP I)
                 (VP pushed
                     (NP John)))
              and
              (S (NP he)
                 (VP fell
                     (PRT over))))))
   .)

So your parse is correct.

However, the advice that independent clauses joined with coordinating conjunctions should have a comma preceding them is sound, but it is only advice, not a rule, and it does indeed admit of exceptions.

You appear to be mistaking a style guide’s simple advice dolled out to beginning writers for an actual rule unbreakable that must be universally applied in all situations without mercy nor recourse to reason or other mitigating circumstances.

This advice is given to prevent common practices by beginning writers that lead too easily to mistaken parses.

Rule 4 of William Strunk’s original Elements of Style of 1918 states:

4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause.

  • The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
  • The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting. As they make complete sense when the comma is reached, the second clause has the appearance of an after-thought. Further, and, is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation.

[. . .]

But a writer may err by making his sentences too uniformly compact and periodic, and an occasional loose sentence prevents the style from becoming too formal and gives the reader a certain relief.

Later editions of that small manual of style advice, once edited by others, mitigated that simple rule with counter-examples.

Greenbaum’s Oxford English Grammar of 1996 both elaborates on this idea and provides common-sense “exceptions” to it. In section 11.19 “Commas for separating independent clauses” on page 530, Greenblaum writes (bold emphasis mine):

If two main clauses are linked by a co-ordinating conjunction, a separating comma is generally used before the conjunction[.]

Examples of and, but, and or are then given, after which appear another set of examples with so, yet, and nor.

Then comes the all-important advice:

A comma may sometimes be absent, particularly if the co-ordinator is and and the clauses are short:

  • [13] Poorly-sorted coarse sand occur around the path reefs and muddy fine sands cover the lagoon floor. [W2A-023-13]

  • [14] She asked Eddie if he wanted a cup of tea but he said no. [Cowboys and Indians, by Joseph O’Connor (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991), p. 178].

I believe that your sentence is one better served by omission of the comma before the and. Certainly the clauses are short.

But probably of greater importance is that it would risk confusing the reader into misparsing just which constituents are being joined here. Your sentence is essentially this:

I remember N.

Slightly expanded, it is:

NP VP

or

I remember (the time when C).

and a bit further:

I remember (the time when (X and Y)).

Because both X and Y are independent clauses governed by an implicit when or that, if you put a comma before and, you in general risk a misparse of the entire sentence into:

(C1), and (C2).

or

(NP VP), and (NP VP).

In other words, it might appear that the two clauses being joined were

(I remember the time I pushed John), and (he fell over).

I don’t think it is truly a risk factor here, but it does make one pause and rescan the sentence to make sure it isn’t something like:

(I still remember the time I pushed John), and (I have never managed to forget its fatal aftermath.)

You want that when to control both independent clauses following it, and you do not want to risk a misparse where the and applies to a different constituent.

You should therefore leave the comma out.

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