Where does the comma go—before or after but?

The Anomaly

You’ve read our article on how to use commas. You know the basic comma rules. You feel your comma confidence increasing. Ah, you think to yourself, look at the fine way this author uses commas! Then, right when you think you understand the punctuation mark fully, you come across this anomaly:

He was tall but, compared to his brother, thin. 

Reflecting on everything you know about coordinating conjunctions, you feel confused. Wait—shouldn’t the comma come before the word but? Why does comma usage have to be so tricky?!

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Using Coordinating Conjunctions to Link Independent Clauses

First, let’s address why you’ll typically put the comma before the word but. Often, you’ll use but and the other coordinating conjunctions (and, for, nor, or, so, and yet) to link together two independent clauses. If you need a trick to remember which words act as coordinating conjunctions, you can remember the acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. When you see one of these words in between two independent clauses, you’ll add a comma before the conjunction. 

Here’s an example:

He was tall, but he was also thin.

In this example sentence, he was tall and he was also thin are both independent clauses. They each stand alone as a complete thought. If you link these clauses with any of the coordinating conjunctions, you would put the comma in the same spot. 

He was tall, yet he was also thin.

He was tall, and he was also thin.

If you didn’t want to use a coordinating conjunction, you could opt to use a semicolon instead. 

He was tall; he was also thin. 

Here’s what you can’t do. You can’t take out the coordinating conjunction and leave the comma to separate two independent clauses. That would be incorrect; you’d be making a grammar mistake called a comma splice. For those who hate semicolons, a period would also be a suitable way to resolve a comma splice. 

Incorrect: He was tall, he was also thin. 

Correct: He was tall. He was also thin. 

Sometimes, You Don’t Need a Comma

Imagine you’re using a coordinating conjunction to connect a main clause and a dependent clause. If that’s the case, you don’t need a comma at all. Here are a few examples of how you could use the word but to link an independent clause to a dependent clause:

She felt tired but happy.

The cat climbed all the trees but one. 

Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest but not Macbeth.

Ask yourself, is the second clause a complete thought? In all of these sentences, the second part does not contain an independent clause that would be able to stand alone as a complete sentence. For that reason, you don’t need to insert a comma before the word but

Sometimes, You Need a Comma for Another Reason

Looking over the rest of the sentence, you may find that you need a comma for a different reason besides linking two independent phrases with a coordinating conjunction. So, if you have a sentence with the word but, you could include a comma after the conjunction for any number of reasons. 

1) An Interrupter

It’s usually easy to use commas but, as you can imagine, not always. 

In this case, the phrase as you can imagine does not change the meaning of the sentence. The phrase, which is set off by commas, merely interrupts the main idea to address the reader directly. 

2) An Introductory Phrase

But, from the very beginning, I learned to love compound sentences.

While many grammar guides advise against beginning a sentence with the word but, doing so remains quite common. If you do decide to begin sentences with a conjunction, a common stylistic choice, you’ll come across circumstances that require a comma after a conjunction. 

In the instance above, you have a four-word prepositional phrase acting as an introductory phrase. Since you should set off an introductory phrase with a pair of commas, that leaves you with a comma after the word but. Keep in mind, an introductory prepositional phrase only needs commas if it is longer than four words. (For shorter phrases, the commas are optional.) In addition to prepositional phrases, other introductory phrases include appositive phrases, participial phrases, absolute phrases, and infinitive phrases.

3) An Introductory Word

But, naturally, I wrote the sentence correctly. 

Here, we have the same scenario. Since the sentence begins with but, any transition word or adverb that comes next acts as an introductory word. Again, any introductory element needs to be set off with a pair of commas. 

So, does the comma come before or after but?

Unfortunately, in the English language, there’s no simple answer to this question. You’ll need to determine where to place your commas by following a few steps. First, ask yourself whether the word but links two complete thoughts. If the answer is yes, then you should certainly put a comma before but

Next, ask yourself whether the sentence needs a comma for some other reason. Perhaps you have included a list or coordinate adjectives. If this is the case, you will need to add a comma or two; however, it’s unlikely that the comma will appear after the word but

After that, think about whether you’ve included an interrupter, an introductory phrase, or an introductory word. If you have, it’s possible that your commas will nestle up against the word but. For an introductory phrase or word, you would only include a comma after but when but appears as the first word in the sentence. To avoid this issue altogether, you may choose not to start a sentence with the word but. In that event, you would only need to look out for interrupters! 

That makes the answer to the question a bit simpler:

1) Does the word but link two complete thoughts? Put the comma before but

2) Is the word but followed by an interrupter? Put the comma after but

Sources:

  1. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/comma-before-but
  2. http://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/commas.htm
  3. https://www.scribendi.com/advice/comma_rules_for_the_comma_obsessed.en.html
  4. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-writing/chapter/commas/

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