by Jennie Ruby
Here are some sample sentences to consider:
"[Switching from video games to electric cars] may not sound like the most obvious career shift, but, given Frohnmayer's location, it might be a smart one." Issie Lapowsky, "Electric Paradise?" Inc. Feb. 2011.
"We did do market research, because we needed the validation of "experts" to raise money. But personally, I didn't need it." Bruce Flohr, as told to Leigh Buchanan, "The Effectual Entrepreneur in Action," Inc. Feb. 2011.
"Windows smartphones haven't been taken seriously until now. But the new Windows Phone 7 platform is easier to use than previous versions...." John Brandon, "Windows Phones Get a Makeover," Inc. Feb. 2011.
One government agency I recently worked with has a rule in its style guide stating that there should be no comma after the word but. Yet the reason they have to state that rule is that many writers want to put one there. Writers on some level may be realizing that even though but is a conjunction, sometimes it feels like a transition word--a key difference being that transition words do require a comma, but conjunctions do not. (Some examples of transition words are however, therefore, thus and hence.)
In our example sentences above, Lapowsky's sentence illustrates the feeling that but is a transition word. The comma after but makes the reader pause. However, it also makes the phrase "given Frohnmayer's location" seem nonessential, by surrounding it with commas. If this were my sentence, I would not have put a comma after but precisely because it makes that phrase look nonessential when it is not. My favorite grammar reference, The Gregg Reference Manual, agrees--the comma after but is overkill.
Nevertheless, the sentence flows well, the reader can pause after but and still understand the sentence, and the copy editors at Inc. let it go. I chalk this up to the leeway writers should have in guiding the reader on where to pause in the sentence, as well as to slippage in the distinction between conjunctions and transition words. More and more writers are using but as a transition, and if readers can understand the sentence, why stick with an arbitrary rule?
Another sentence with a similar structure and published in the same magazine, my second example above, does not have the comma after but, even though in this case the word "personally" is in fact nonessential and could legitimately be surrounded by commas. Yet the flow of the sentence works without the comma just fine.
The third example illustrates a situation where the word but is not followed by any kind of interrupting phrase, and it is very clear that there is no question of putting a comma after but there.
Should you put a comma after but? Not if your style guide says not to and not if there is no interrupting phrase. But if you do have an interrupting phrase, perhaps you should make a well-considered judgment-call based on the flow of the sentence.
Here is a challenge: Find all the sentences in this article that have a conjunction followed by a complete sentence but no comma after the conjunction. Then evaluate whether you would have put a comma after the conjunction. I would love to hear your opinion on these sentences. Hint: the conjunctions in English are but, or, nor, and, yet, for, and so.
Are you an eLearning developer who has been tasked with creating an effective voiceover script? If so, consider attending Jennie's Writing Effective eLearning Voiceover Scripts class. Jennie also teaches the Writing Training Documents and eLearning Scripts and the Complete Review of Grammar class.
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Editing with Word 2003 and Acrobat 7" and "Editing with MS Word 2007" to her credit. She is a publishing professional with more than 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.