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I have a simple question, and I am hoping for a simple answer: Do you ever use a comma after a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) when you are using the coordinating conjunction to separate two independent clauses?

Example:

This is slightly earlier than I'd propose for most students, but [do I need a comma here] as we discussed, it is important to me that we have her well prepared for the October PSAT - a test that has little to no import to the average student - because of its national merit scholarship qualifying status.

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    I think you need a comma there not because it's a co-ordinating conjunction but because "as we discussed" is a parenthetical insertion. If that were omitted, you wouldn't need a comma except perhaps for the one after students. That said, the whole sentence is horrendous as it's far too long. – Andrew Leach Aug 5 '16 at 20:40
  • As Andrew implies, 'but' isn't separating two independent clauses directly here. However, I think the rules of how one should punctuate around parentheticals have been relaxed in recent years (though not by prescriptivists). I'd be happy enough to let how I wanted the sentence to be read dictate my choice (there being no chance of confusion). – Edwin Ashworth Aug 5 '16 at 21:38
  • The first 20 hits for "but as we have seen" on Google consist of 3x "but," / 12x "but" (ie zero punctuation) / 2x "but –" / 2x weighty as-clauses (the comma becoming more necessary to aid readability) / 1x ungrammatical matrix. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 6 '16 at 11:05
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I've worked at various publications whose house rules forbade putting a comma after a conjunction if the result would be to isolate the conjunction either (a) at the beginning of a sentence, with a comma following it, or (b) at the beginning of a clause, with commas on both sides of it. Thus, in serene disregard of what one might argue is the more logical approach, those house style guidelines would require the following punctuation of your example:

This is slightly earlier than I'd propose for most students, but as we discussed, it is important to me that we have her well prepared for the October PSAT—a test that has little to no import to the average student—because of its national merit scholarship qualifying status.

and not the following punctuation:

This is slightly earlier than I'd propose for most students, but, as we discussed, it is important to me that we have her well prepared for the October PSAT—a test that has little to no import to the average student—because of its national merit scholarship qualifying status.

In (evasive) deference to those guidelines, I would, when possible, reword such sentences either as

This is slightly earlier than I'd propose for most students. But as we discussed, it is important to me that we have her well prepared for the October PSAT—a test that has little to no import to the average student—because of its national merit scholarship qualifying status.

(if the first clause seemed sufficiently independent of the following one) or as

This is slightly earlier than I'd propose for most students; but as we discussed, it is important to me that we have her well prepared for the October PSAT—a test that has little to no import to the average student—because of its national merit scholarship qualifying status.

(if it did not). An examination of punctuation conventions in the U.S. popular press should convince you that numerous publishing houses oppose isolating transitional conjunctions such as but and and with commas, even when a following parenthetical phrase might seem to justify it.


As for your question about whether you should "ever use a comma after a coordinating conjunction," my answer is that doing so is not objectively wrong—and indeed may be logically satisfying, since it sometimes helps neatly break out a parenthetical phrase (such as "as we discussed" in your example)—but that in U.S. practice it is by no means universally endorsed.

If you are writing to your own standard, use the punctuation you prefer; but be aware that some style guides strongly oppose adding a comma after a transitional conjunction.

  • A near-defining non-defining answer. Can you mention any Style Guides not strongly opposing a comma after a transitional conjunction (and not by default)? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 5 '16 at 23:42
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    @EdwinAshworth: I looked through three or four and couldn't find anything pro or con—but I have more than a dozen, so I'll keep checking. If I find something definite, I'll certainly add it to my answer. Often, when a style decision gets promulgated at the house style level, it's because the bigshot style guides such as Chicago and AP haven't addressed it directly. – Sven Yargs Aug 6 '16 at 0:01
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    Thank you for the legwork. Obviously, parentheticals are almost always set off by some form of punctuation, and this is usually needed to disambiguate or at least improve readability. However, I don't think '... but as we have seen ...' causes many problems (and mirrors the way it is often read). I'd like a respected style guide to recommend sensible usage rather than slavish adherence to tradition. / The first 20 hits for "but as we have seen" on Google consist of 3x "but," / 12x "but" / 2x "but –" / 2x weighty as-clauses / 1x ungrammatical matrix. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 6 '16 at 11:02
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    @EdwinAshworth: None of my style and usage manuals offer guidance on this precise point. The most interesting discussion of the logic of paired commas appears in an appendix to Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage (1966), which asserts "When both commas of a logical pair have room to appear and one or the other is omitted, stumbling and annoyance result"—but Follett doesn't offer any examples of single-word transitional conjunctions of the type mentioned by the OP here as instances that create stumbling and annoyance. Insistence on strict logic must defer to effective clarity, I think. – Sven Yargs Aug 6 '16 at 17:10
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    Yes, but here, with a very common and shortish parenthetical after 'but', clarity is not an issue. Nor is etic logic. I've found one comma after but in the first forty hits for a search for "but on the other hand". I'd say that the comma is nothing other than an optional pause-marker here. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 6 '16 at 22:08

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