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I am editing some copy, and I'm not sure how to handle these examples. Here is the structure that concerns me:

As a consequence of the magic curse, the cakes dance the salsa[,] and the birds eat peanut butter.

Now, because "the birds eat peanut butter" is an independent clause, it would normally gain a comma (,and the birds...). However, one could also perceive this as a list of two consequences of the magic curse. A two item list generally receives no comma.

Thoughts? The style guide offers no opinion.

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If the style guide you're using doesn't say otherwise, you may omit the comma if the independent clause is sufficiently short.

Here's Kate Turabian on how to use commas in academic writing:

Independent Clauses

In a sentence containing two or more independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet), put a comma before the conjunction. This is not a hard-and-fast rule; no comma is needed between two short independent clauses with no internal punctuation.

(Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Eighth Edition, section 21.2.)

The example of a short enough clause? It's a simple subject / verb / adverbial independent clause.

The senator arrived at noon and the president left at one.

Here's another example from Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference, 9th edition, P1-b:

The plane took off and we were on our way.

Your own independent clause with a simple direct object ("peanut butter" ) is just as short. Both sources present this as a choice that you may do. You'd have a clear, defensible reason for omitting the comma if you wanted to.

This rule would take precedence over any rule involving a series, since usually guidebooks recommend that you put a comma between three or more items in a list. Not putting a comma between two items in a list is inferred from the omission of such a convention, but it's also a strong enough logical consequence that it feels like a rule. I would wonder too!

So I would focus on whether the sentence is short enough to not need a comma (ex. are the subject and predicate composed of one phrase of three words or less each? if so, omit the comma), and then I'd apply that rule consistently based on what I decided.

  • Thanks TaliesinMerlin! So, for example, if the sentence was: "As a consequence of the magic curse, the cakes dance the salsa with whichever condiment dares approach them [,] and the birds slather peanut butter on any object that could pass as a utensil." then the rule of coordinating conjunctions would win out over the convention for two item lists, and I would therefore put a comma? – secondshepherd Jan 17 at 21:58
  • I'd put a comma in that case. While there's no absolute rule for length, I would call an independent clause with a that-clause more complex than a clause with a simple subject / verb / direct object. Even with the comma, the latter clause will be read "as a consequence of the magic curse," and other adjustments can be made to make that reading more likely: "as two consequences of the magic curse," or "There were two consequences of the magic curse:" . – TaliesinMerlin Jan 17 at 22:07
  • @secondshepherd The main purpose of punctuation is to avoid misinterpretation. If it's highly unlikely that something could be misinterpreted without punctuation, then (everything being equal) you can choose to omit it. – Jason Bassford Jan 17 at 22:37

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