When should I use a comma before ‘and’?

Updated: Nov 10

Takeaway: For commas before ‘and’, you must check to see which case applies. There is no simple yes or no answer to this question. If you are editing fiction, there is even more room for manoeuvre.

Scroll down for bonus guidance on using a comma before 'before'.


In this blog post on when to use a comma before ‘and’, I’ll cover several scenarios.


Scenario 1) Lists ending in ‘and’


Consider the sentence:


Andy likes apple pie, blackberry crumble, and pumpkin pie.

This comma before ‘and’ is called a serial comma (or Oxford comma). It is optional, and professional editors make a style decision on whether to use it or not.


Sometimes, when editors choose not to use serial commas in a text (a style decision), a comma can be necessary to remove an ambiguity:


Andy ate pumpkin pie with his brothers, Paul and Fred

Here, it’s unclear whether his brothers are called Paul and Fred, or whether Paul and Fred are extra people at the dinner table.


Scenario 2) Tripartite clauses ending in ‘and’


Here’s an example:


Priya ate her soup, dropped her spoon in the bowl, and got up from the restaurant table.

This looks a bit like a list, so should you follow the serial comma preference you use for other lists?


Many fiction editors will make a separate call on these phrases, which often feature when describing a series of character actions (called an action beat). They come up a lot in fiction writing because they usually involve concrete, everyday situations.


Technically speaking, the comma before ‘and’ is optional here, but I usually make the style decision to include it, as it separates off the two final actions – and these are usually two separate actions.


I make the call to use a comma here even if serial commas are not used for lists. This is common practice, but some editors may work differently. If you do – write a comment below!


Scenario 3) Two full sentences linked by ‘and’


Here’s an example:


Ariel walked into the bar, and the glass collector stared at her.

Here, we have two clauses that could be free-standing sentences:


Ariel walked into the bar. The glass collector stared at her.

In US English, you must put a comma before ‘and’ here. In British English, however, it is optional, as discussed here.


As a rule of thumb, if editing in British English, the decision to use a comma here would depend for me on:


a) How closely the two sentences relate,

b) Whether use of a comma (or not) improves the rhythm and flow, and

c) the author’s preferences and style across the text as a whole.


If the sentences are closely related (e.g. the same subject and a related action), I would tend not to use a comma when editing in British English. For instance:


Ariel walked into the bar and she ordered a drink.

BUT:

Ariel walked into the bar, and the glass collector stared at her.

Also: when editing fiction in US English, the comma rule here can be broken if the sentence flows better without it – there are a few rules that can be bent or broken when editing fiction as rhythm and flow is often much more important.


Scenario 4) A clause that is not a full sentence linked to another sentence with ‘and’


Look at the example below. Here, we don’t have a full sentence at the end, but a comma before ‘and’ is useful for clarity as we don’t have a list:


Andy made a pumpkin pie and a blackberry crumble, and cleaned the kitchen in a hurry.

Scenario 5) A bracketed phrase


Very occasionally, a phrase that is optional, and that could be put in brackets, begins with ‘and’:


Andy made a pumpkin pie for the first time, and he was very proud of his attempt, before cleaning the kitchen.

Here, the first two commas could be swapped for brackets:


Andy made a pumpkin pie for the first time (and he was very proud of his attempt) before cleaning the kitchen.

Commas are ‘quieter’ than brackets here! If commas are used parenthetically in this way, then the comma before ‘and’ is necessary.


Bonus tip: what about a comma before ‘before’?


Here's an example:


Andy made a pumpkin pie for the first time before cleaning the kitchen.

Do we need a comma before ‘before’ here? There is no hard guidance in the Chicago Manual of Style on this. In fiction, if the author wants to signal a pause, a comma before 'before' is okay if the clause contains an action, so:


Andy made a pumpkin pie for the first time, before cleaning the kitchen. (Comma okay but not needed)
Andy made a pumpkin pie for the first time, before dinner. (Comma not okay)

I hope this covers the main situations you may have come across. If not, write a comment below and I will get back to you soon with a reply!



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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a copyeditor and developmental editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.


He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.


You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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