Ask our Editors: Using a comma before ‘but’

Commas create cadence and rhythm, clauses and pauses. But it’s not always obvious where to put them, as this letter from a subscriber to our newsletter shows. Fortunately, our team of editors are here to help.

Q: May I run a quick sanity check with you please? A student asks whether it’s always necessary to use a comma when you use ‘but’ to turn a sentence.

For example:

John is generally a quiet boy, but he occasionally pipes up if anybody provokes him.

My understanding is that when the ‘but’ introduces an independent clause like this, a comma is needed.

But with this type of sentence:

Paul likes oranges but not apples…

…a comma isn’t required.

However, I want to also say to this student that there is both a technical and artistic way of looking at grammar and punctuation, so I wouldn’t rule out, for instance, the possibility of using a comma even when, from a strict grammatical standpoint, it may not be necessary.

I would love to know what you think about this answer!

Thank you,



A: Hi Sharni, the comma adds an extra pause for emphasis in this context, but isn’t necessary unless the sentence would be confusing or unwieldy without it. That sentence is a good example of where the comma is necessary, since without it you’d have a lot of words flowing together.

In the case of a shorter, simpler sentence – like the two examples in your original email – the comma isn’t essential but could be added for effect/pause, kind of like a rest in music notation. In that sentence I might have added a comma before ‘but’, but the sentence was clear enough without it.

For more detailed information you could check out our comma-specific blog post. The commas we’re talking about here fall under the ‘Subjective commas’ heading in that post, in the sense that you can use them for effect or as a signpost to help guide the reader, but they’re not mandatory.

Hope that helps!

Olivia McDowell

Senior Writer & Editor (New York)

Olivia McDowell is one of Editor Group’s editors and proofreaders. Learn more about our editing services or contact us.

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