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Comma before Or: when to use it


Studying the rules of use commas conjunctions can be tricky. Or is a particularly tricky word when it comes to commas because it can be a coordinating conjunction, a subordinating conjunction, or appear in a list.

Always post a comma before word or when it joins two independent clauses. You can also use a comma before or in the list.

Today we will take a deeper look at the rules for using commas or and see some examples.

Do you put a comma before or?

To know whether to use a comma before oryou must first understand the difference between independent and dependent clauses.

An independent clause expresses a complete thought. In other words, an independent clause can function as a complete independent clause.

A dependent clause “depends” on having an independent clause attached to it. It does not express a complete thought and therefore cannot be an independent sentence.

Sometimes we connect two independent sentences. We can do this with a semicolon instead of a period, or we can use a comma and a coordinating conjunction.

There are seven main coordinating conjunctions: for, and, no, but, or, yet, yes. You can use the acronym FANBOYS to remember them.

When you join an independent clause with a second independent clause using oryou must use a comma before or. This rule applies to all coordinating conjunctions.

Here’s an example:

  • We can go to Taco Bell for dinner or we can eat at home.

You can see that there are two independent clauses connected in this sentence or. Both clauses can stand alone as complete sentences, so we know they are independent.

However, sometimes we combine an independent clause with a dependent clause. For this we use subordinating conjunctions. There are dozens of subordinating conjunctions, including or.

If or joins a dependent clause with an independent clause, do not use a comma before it or.

Here is an example or acts as a subordinating conjunction:

  • We can go to Taco Bell for dinner or eat at home

“Eat at home” is not a complete thought, so it is a dependent clause. That’s why we didn’t put a comma before or in this example.

If you use a comma before or

Oxford comma before or in the list

You can also use a comma before or when it appears in the list. An Oxford comma, or serial comma, is a comma before a conjunction in a list. A trailing comma is optional, but not required.

Here’s an example of how you might use a trailing comma:

With a trailing comma: Do you want scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs, poached eggs or scrambled eggs?

Without a trailing comma: Do you want scrambled eggs, poached eggs or extra-light?

Both are correct. Whether you use a comma in Oxford is a matter of preference or your style guide if you have one.

It’s important to be consistent when you use or don’t use Oxford commas; avoid switching back and forth. You can check the consistency of your comma usage in ProWritingAid’s compliance report.

Oxford comma before or

Do you put a comma after or?

We usually don’t use commas after or. The only situation where you can use a comma after or this is when or stands before the phrase in parentheses.

When we separate parenthetical phrases with commas, we put a comma before and after them.

Here’s what it might look like:

  • You can spend your money on a new TV, or, if i were yousave it for vacation.

“If I were you” is a parenthetical thought. We could remove this without affecting the meaning of the sentence. This is the only time you use a comma after it or.

If you use a comma after or

Comma before Or and after Or Examples

Let’s check some more examples of when you should use a comma before or when acting as a coordinating conjunction.

  • My unpredictable boss can fire me in a meeting or he will give me a promotion.
  • Should we go to Mexico this year or should we wait and go to Europe next year?
  • A student can enroll in a university in New York, or she can choose a gap year.
  • I can break up with him this weekend or he may agree to go to couples counseling.
  • should i wear a white dress or should you go shopping for a new outfit?
  • The doctor may have bad news, or test results may be negative.

Here are some more examples of using the serial comma before or:

  • She wants to go to UCLA, Pennsylvania, or Harvard for college.
  • You can choose strawberry pie, apple pie, tiramisu, or cheesecake for dessert.
  • I would like to visit Japan, Thailand, or South Korea when I go to Asia next.
  • Of the following Marvel superheroes, do you prefer Black Widow, Captain Marvel, or Scarlet Witch?
  • The hiring committee couldn’t pick a Yale graduate, an Air Force veteran, or a former teacher.
  • The culprit was either a new puppy, a toddler with sticky fingers, or a troublesome cat. or a hyper sophomore.

Finally, here are some more examples of using commas after or if it comes before the phrase in brackets:

  • We can focus on Instagram marketing orif you think it will be better, TikTok marketing this quarter.
  • I can make spaghetti for dinner, or if that sounds better, we can grab hamburgers.
  • She can stay here ordespite her parents’ objections, she is able to get a job in Spain.

Remember to only use a comma before it or if it separates two independent clauses or if it is in a list.

For more help with the correct use of commas, you can check your text in our free grammar checker.

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