According to the wonderful website, Get it Write, there are two specific situations that call for the use of a comma before the word and:
The first instance is created when there are three or more items in a series. This mark of punctuation is called the serial comma which I covered in a post called Comatose Ambiguity, (see link here)
“The second situation occurs when “and” is being used to coordinate two independent clauses. An independent clause—also known as a main clause—is a group of words that has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence. In the following example, the independent clauses are in brackets:
- [Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years], and [today he is an accomplished performer].
“The use of the comma would also apply when any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) join two independent clauses.
“Notice in the next example that we do not use a comma before “and” because it does not join two independent clauses but merely joins two verbs:
- Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years and today is an accomplished performer.
“Here we have only one independent clause—two verbs (“took” and “is”) but one subject (“Miguel”).” (Quoted directly from Get it Write, Sept 8, 2014)
I know this will be difficult for some to swallow, but commas do not serve as pausing places for the reader to breathe. They join together clauses–short sentences–that would make your narrative sound choppy if they were left to stand by themselves. Take these short sentences, for instance:
Rall had seen to it that John sparred daily. He cut a swath through the ranks quickly. Even Garran had no legitimate complaints. He still needled John at every opportunity.
Each sentence can technically stand alone, but they are boring and choppy that way.
Rall had seen to it that John sparred daily, cutting a swath through the ranks at such a rate that even Garran had no legitimate complaints, although he still needled him at every opportunity.
Another good online reference is Brian Wasko’s Write at Home Blog. His article called 7 Ways NOT to Use a Comma is good stuff. Of particular interest to this post on using commas for pauses: “The comma-by-ear method doesn’t work — at least not consistently. I inevitably inserted unnecessary commas all over the place.”
One rule he mentions (that is one of my personal weak areas) is rule number four (and I love his comments):
4. Don’t use a comma to connect two clauses if the second clause is subordinate (i.e., dependent).
Frowny face: Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined, because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers.
Smiley face: Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers. (end quote)
I would have shot straight to sticking the comma in front of ‘because’ because it is a good place to pause. (Yep. I said because because.) (Snicker.)
Using commas for pauses is an invitation for comatose mayhem. Consider this: Every person reads aloud at a different rate and with a different cadence. If you indiscriminately throw your commas in wherever YOU think a pause should go, your prose will be filled with strange bumps in the road, because your reader won’t be pausing where YOU think they should. No matter how much of a control freak you are, you can’t force people to read the same way you do. This is why we follow common rules when using punctuation.
Commas separate independent clauses from each other and also from introductory words. In other words, they divide little sentences from each other in order to form compound sentences.
Oh, the editorial agony.