Do you mean to tell me you’ve never heard of Joe Comma and the FANBOYS? Why they’ve been around longer than Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They’re more popular than Gladys Knight and the Pips. And they’re much more useful than Country Joe and the Fish. In fact, if you become a big fan of Joe Comma and the FANBOYS, you may be surprised at what happens to your grades this semester.
Joe Comma and the FANBOYS have been around for about 1,500 years, ever since people began writing and punctuating in English. No, they’re not a musical group. FANBOYS is an acronym to help you remember the seven coordinating conjunctions:
A coordinating conjunction is used to connect words, phrases, and clauses of equal weight. If you’re connecting two items that are not complete thoughts, you don’t need a comma before the coordinating conjunction, which in the following example is separating the lead singer from the rest of the group: “I enjoy the music of Country Joe and the Fish.”
However, if you want to connect two complete thoughts, you do need a comma before the coordinating conjunction separating the first complete thought from the second: “I enjoy the music of Country Joe and the Fish, but I don’t understand the fascination with Joe Comma and the FANBOYS.”
When I present this rule in class, most students nod and say they understand. (Note, no comma is needed before the word “and” because “nod” and “say” are not complete thoughts.) When these same students turn in their papers, however, I find three common mistakes.
First, some students make the mistake of putting a comma before the word “because” in their sentences. However, this comma is unnecessary because the word “because” is not one of the FANBOYS. While exceptions to the general rule may exist, typically, you don’t need a comma before the word “because.”
Secondly, some students also put a comma in the second half of a sentence that reads like this: “Jack and Jill went up the hill, and fetched a pail of water.” Unfortunately, the comma after the word “hill” is incorrect because the phrase “fetched a pail of water” is not a complete thought by itself. That phrase is missing its subject: “Jack and Jill,” or a pronoun such as “they.” Thus, the sentence “Jack and Jill went up the hill, and they fetched a pail of water” does need the comma, but that same sentence without the word “they” does not.
Finally, some students simply leave the comma out of their sentences so I have to put it in when I correct their papers. The previous sentence, for example, should have a comma before the word “so” because both halves of the sentence can stand alone as complete thoughts.
Naturally, this short essay can’t cover everything you need to know about using commas correctly. However, if you can remember what the FANBOYS are and if you can remember to use commas before them when connecting two complete thoughts, you’ve mastered one aspect of commas that often causes problems for student writers.