Funny Sign With Comma Error

Never let it be said that I don’t have a sense of humor. It might be true, but never say it.

A Funny Sign

While having my morning coffee, I came across a link to funny, and often unfortunate, store signs (which I call sighns). Lo and behold, I found a sign that has a comma error. Go figure.

The text of the sign reads

Watch your parents, these items are sharp!
(safe for work: http://chzoddlyspecific.wordpress.com/page/17/?ref=chz)

The Problem

This has one comma, and it’s wrong. This faulty sentence joins two independent clauses with only a comma. This is called a comma splice.

An independent clause has a subject and a predicate, and it can serve as a complete sentence. In this sign, the first independent clause is Watch your parents, and the second one is these items are sharp!

You can use a comma to join independent clauses, but only if the comma is preceded by a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. (The first letters of coordinating conjunctions spell out FANBOYS.) Using a comma-conjunction combination to join independent clauses follows Zen Comma Rule D: Put a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.

The Corrections

In this funny sign, better options are to use a semicolon, a colon, or a period with a capital letter, as follows.

  • Watch your parents; these items are sharp!
  • Watch your parents: these items are sharp!
  • Watch your parents. These items are sharp.

A Caution

You might think that this sign could read Watch your parents, because these items are sharp!, with a comma before because. This, too, would be wrong. Because is not a coordinating conjunction, so Rule D doesn’t apply. In this situation, we follow Zen Comma Rule F: Don’t use a comma before because when joining two independent clauses–unless needed by another rule.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, a guide to the 17 major uses and misuses of commas.
Read more about Zen Comma.

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  1. #1 by Oliver Lawrence on May 27, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    If ‘because’ is not a co-ordinating conjunction (i.e. it is a subordinating conjunction), surely the clause that it introduces will necessarily be a subordinate (not another independent) clause, in which case your rule F is void as it can never apply. Perhaps you could illustrate when you believe rule F can apply with a choice example?

  2. #2 by preciseedit on May 27, 2011 - 12:45 pm

    Oliver: You are correct. The clause that begins with because cannot be an independent clause, which means because cannot link two independent clauses.

    The confusion I see is writers mistaking the text after because for an independent clause and thinking a comma is needed before because as if it were joining two independent clauses—although it isn’t. Writers who do not fully understand the difference between independent and subordinate clauses will need that rule, and writers who do, such as you, will realize that it is void.

    Zen Comma has a more thorough discussion of why that rule doesn’t apply. It avoids the term subordinate clause but describes the same thing.

    We’ll only have a comma before because when needed by another type of comma use, such as in this sentence: “I took flowers to my wife, Griselda, because it was her birthday.”

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