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The rule I learned is that a sentence with a single subject but a compound predicate that’s joined together with a coordinating conjunction must have no comma:

  1. I went to the lake but did not catch any fish.
    (one independent clause whose subject distributes across two verbs joined with a conjunction)

That rule states that a comma should be used only when two independent sentences are combined with a coordinating conjunction to create a compound sentence:

  1. I went to the lake, and I saw a duck.
    (two independent clauses, each with its own subject and verb)

However, I see this rule being broken time and again by popular writers where a complex sentence with a coordinating conjunction is separated by a comma. I take it that this rule, like so many other English “rules”, has room for exceptions.

So, in which cases can this “rule” be broken?

Edit: I'm reading a book called "Known and Strange Things: Essays" by Teju Cole. In this book I saw a sentence that read "I'm not superstitious, and thought nothing of it." "Thought nothing of it" is a dependent sentence joined by a comma with the previous independent sentence.

  • Could you please add some examples from published works that you feel are at odds with the rule you learned? ¶ By the way, a compound-anything has two or more anythings. Therefore a compound sentence has two or more sentences (independent clauses) to it. You seem to have confused compound sentences and perhaps complex sentences (which are something else) with compound verbs. A sentence where a single subject governs more than verb is still a simple sentence, not a compound or complex one. It just has a compound predicate, which isn't enough to make something a compound sentence on its own. – tchrist Dec 2 '17 at 20:15
  • @tchrist please see my edit. – Raj Dec 2 '17 at 20:27
  • Thank you. Yes, this is sanctioned; we might well have some duplicates about the matter but a cursory search failed to turn them up. – tchrist Dec 2 '17 at 20:29
  • “I'm not superstitious, and thought nothing of it” is no more a complex sentence than is “I went down to the café and ate“. There is no dependent clause here, nor is there a subordinating conjunction. There is a coordinating conjunction and a compound predicate. Those sentences are neither complex nor compound. – tchrist Dec 2 '17 at 20:35
  • If you can write it as an answer I'll accept it. I figure this might help novice English learners like me. – Raj Dec 2 '17 at 20:37
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“I'm not superstitious, and thought nothing of it” is no more a complex sentence than is “I went down to the café and ate“. There is no dependent clause here, nor is there a subordinating conjunction. There is a coordinating conjunction and a compound predicate. Those sentences are neither complex nor compound.

That said, it is unusual but not unheard of to use a comma before the conjunction in a compound predicate. This normally indicate a slight pause in speaking; a stronger pause might use a dash. It can also sometimes be used to disambiguate what might otherwise lead to a wrong parse in certain garden-path sentences.

  • "Those sentences are neither complex nor compound." Could you expand on this a little? I presume they aren't being deemed compound because they share the same subject. "I.e I ate an apple and I ate a pear" is classed as compound by "I ate and apple and ate a pear" is not? What are the downsides of interpreting "I ate an apple and ate a pear" as "I ate an apple and (I) ate a pear" and then viewing this as a compound sentence and not creating this concept of a "complex predicate" – Att Righ Dec 2 '17 at 21:01
  • @AttRigh (You mean compound predicate, not complex one.) Would you classify something like "John and Jane ate lunch" as somehow being a compound sentence rather than a simple one with a compound subject merely because it can be analysed as "John ate lunch and Jane ate lunch"? Notice how in "We will eat, drink, and be merry" the "We will" portion distributes across all three of those verbs. How can that be considered to have three independent clauses? It cannot. Because it has only one independent clause, it therefore cannot be considered a compound sentence. – tchrist Dec 2 '17 at 21:39
  • I would not... though it might result in a more parsimonious grammar if one did! I guess my feeling is object + verb + potentially adverbs and adverbials means sentence "I left angrily last night and bought a sandwich on the way home unfortunately". Like I mean you can give "all of a sentence other the subject" a name but I wonder what it does for you! – Att Righ Dec 2 '17 at 21:51
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Sometimes writers will insert a comma for their readers' sake. A comma sometimes lends itself to easier (and better) readability. A comma can speed up readers' reading, obviating the need to "back up" and re-read a sentence, thus saving time. Using your example of

I'm not superstitious, and thought nothing of it,

I suggest that if you take the comma out of the sentence, a reader might think a second adjective is going to follow superstitious and might therefore "back up" and re-read the sentence, if only to find out first, there are not two adjectives, but one, and second, that the writer conveys the meaning of the second part of the sentence by omitting the pronoun I.

Here's another example which might serve to illustrate my point:

I was relieved to find out the dog was harmless and relaxed once I realized it.

Without a comma in the above sentence, a reader like me would tend to conflate the adjectives harmless and relaxed, thinking they both describe the dog, which they do not.

. . . the dog was harmless and relaxed . . ..

No, the dog is not harmless and relaxed; the dog is harmless (an adjective), and the writer relaxed (the past tense of the verb relax). Big difference!

Here, then, is the same sentence, but this time with a comma:

I was relieved to find out the dog was harmless, and relaxed once I found out.

In conclusion, the "rules" of writing were made to be broken, particularly when a sentence is in danger of either being misread or reread because a comma is missing.

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