If you type “comma” and “but” into Google, the search engine will give you some autosuggestions including: “comma after but at beginning of sentence” and “is there a comma before or after but.”
According to editors and grammarians, there is no comma after the word but at the beginning of a sentence. But it is something I see a lot in sentences like “But, there were too many of them to count” or “But, we were afraid the situation would get worse.”
When I see these commas in the work of writers, I invariably cross them out. If I find just one, I’ll squiggle it out and put a question mark (or sometimes a frowny face) in the margin, hoping it is a typo. If I see another instance of but followed by a comma, I’ll strike it out again and write “no comma after but.” If I see lots of instances of the initial but with a comma, I’ll suggest that the writer see me. They rarely do.
It’s a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but I can’t help but wonder why writers adopt this punctuation. There is really only one comma rule that mentions conjunctions: a comma goes before a coordinating conjunction that separates two independent clauses.
So why would a writer put a comma after sentence-initial but?
I’ve got a few hypotheses.
One possibility is that it is an error of analogy. Writers see examples of the adverb however followed by a comma at the beginning of a sentence and make a false analogy: however means the same thing as but; a comma is needed after however; therefore a comma is needed after but. However, adverbs and conjunctions are different grammatical categories, so the analogy does not yield the right punctuation.
Another possibility is that a writer is punctuating by ear, relying on the old idea that you put a comma where you take a breath. Since but signals a disjunction, a writer might imagine a pause and insert a comma on that basis. But punctuation is not determined solely by pauses heard in our mental ear. It is (mostly) keyed to grammatical and rhetorical categories like coordinating conjunction, independent or introductory clause, essential and inessential phrases, coordinate adjectives, and so on. If pausing is the basis for the comma after but, we are dealing with a false underlying assumption leading to an error.
If we can understand why writers make the wrong analogy or internalize the wrong underlying assumption or adopt the wrong generalization, then perhaps we can get punctuation to make more sense to future generations of writers.
A third possibility is that writers notice instances of paired, parenthetical commas the first of which happens to occur after but. They might generalize from that observation to the idea that a comma is always needed. It is easy to find examples of this pattern like “But, as my music teacher always reminded me, you must practice every day,” “But, as any driver will tell you, the commute seems endless,” or “But, always remember, you must never put your finger in a light socket.” If someone is focused too locally on the comma after but and ignores the fact that it is part of a pair of commas, they might make a false generalization.
I think it is important to puzzle about problems like this. Grammar is more than just correcting errors. If we can understand why writers make the wrong analogy or internalize the wrong underlying assumption or adopt the wrong generalization, then perhaps we can get punctuation to make more sense to future generations of writers.
I’m still not sure how to get to the bottom of this. Someday, I may create a little questionnaire that I will attach as a comment to papers to see what more I can learn. Something like this:
Why did you use a comma here?
(a) To indicate a breath or pause.
(b) Because commas are used with words like However, Well, Yes, or No at the beginning of a sentence.
(c) Because a comma always follows but.
(d) Some other reason _______________________________.
Someday I will figure out this puzzling comma.
Featured image credit: “Helvetica Paintings : , comma” by veganstraightedge. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Think maybe there should be some butting out.
I have a friend who uses commas indiscriminatelly to the point of, literally, taking my breath away.
But, whether I like it or not, I have to read her messages; just as there are some instances in which a comma must be used after the word “but.”
I would use a comma after an initial “But” if, but only if, I wanted to indicate that, were the sentence to be read aloud, there should be a marked and dramatic pause at that point.
“But, as my music teacher always reminded me, you must practice every day,”
When did America abandon the verb ‘practise’?
Just before you include your questionnaire, you write: “Someday, I may create a little questionnaire that I will attach as a comment to papers to see what more I can learn.” Would you say the comma after “Someday” is necessary? (I know comma-haters who would omit that one.)
I notice this more and more with my students’ writing. I think the “breath pause” is the culprit but it is a difficult habit to break.
Some students put a comma after every use of the word, regardless of its position in the sentence, thinking it automatically must be followed by a comma.
“Dramatic prosody” is an answer I would consider. I personally use commas (and other punctuation such as em dashes) to indicate the flow of speech when writing dialogue in fiction, as I believe it is far more important to “hear” what is said as it is intended to be heard than to follow grammatical rules of general writing and punctuation. (This may make some pedants balk, but I believe it is true, and I do nevertheless recognise it as a sort of artistic licence with the language.)
This being the case, the use of a comma after “but” can be placed there for the purpose of heightening drama (as per Eric Thompson’s comment). This may at first glance appear to be furthering the “punctuation equals pauses” fallacy, except that it is not necessarily a fallacy when used, as I say, in dialogue. When writing non-fiction in a frank, conversational manner, it may be that the comma after the “but” finds its way in there as well, and perhaps with some validity if heightening drama is its purpose.
That doesn’t mean it is always used well, even in that context, however I do believe it can be used validly if done judiciously. The problem I feel comes from overuse, or being used in more academic or technical contexts where it is likely inappropriate.
Writers use a comma after “But” at the beginning of a sentence the same as they would after “However”.
“However, we were afraid the situation would get worse.”
The function is the same. Shouldn’t the treatment be the same? I don’t argue it should (or shouldn’t) be. I pose the question because I don’t know, and I didn’t see this argument addressed.
Good prosody comes from the actual words you use. If you have to force it through an intentional grammatical error, then you’re lacking the real skills at making your writing come alive. Cadence, rhythm, voice etc come from the hard work of word choice, not the easy work of not bothering to remember the rule.
Moreover, it’s clear that when people want to use punctuation artistically, most of the time they strip it out (Cormac McCarthy in particular). They don’t add in commas where there shouldn’t be. The writing flows through good choice of words, leaving out what other writers would choose to (over)-embellish, and getting to the heart of their characters. As a reader, I don’t read commas as pauses, so using them isn’t going to work in the way you want them to work.
How many of you read your posts ten times before pressing POST COMMENT? I didn’t, but I’m a man of few words. LoL 🤣
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