comma before 'as' [conjunction]: were free, as the case had not been


Senior Member
English - United States
I know that it almost always unnecessary to use a comma before 'because,' but what about before 'as' when it used to mean 'because'? What confuses me is that I see in examples from the online Oxford Dictionary a comma used before 'as.' Is it optional with this conjunction?
  • Please give us some context--an example or two of a sentence (either from the dictionary or from your own head) in which you're wondering if the comma should be used or not. Without that, it's really not possible to answer your question.
    Well, in the dictionary it says "they were free, as the case had not been proved." The example I am personally wondering about is from my Song of Solomon essay:

    "She breastfeeds him until he is “[t]oo old,” as she cannot detach herself from the intimacy she feels while nursing him (Morrison 126)."
    The current usage would eliminate commas except where the usage would be unclear without them. It would be clear without a comma before "as."
    Look at the two examples.
    The dictionary:
    ... they were free, as the case had not been proved.
    She breastfeeds him until he is “[t]oo old,” as she cannot detach herself

    Without the comma, the dictionary's example comes to my brain as a simile:
    ... they were free as the case had...
    It isn't until I read to "the case" that I realise it's not going to be "free as a bird" or something like that. The comma saves me from that misunderstanding.

    There isn't a similar risk with your sentence.
    I might still use a comma there, but that's just because I'm inclined to punctuate more rather than less.
    Usage has more influence than dictionary advice because dictionarty advice is static while the way words are defined, pronounced etc. depend upon an historical point of time. If you think of punctuation as road signs which are placed in your speech for the purpose to slow the reader down or make the reader pause, then commas, semicolons, dashes etc., are doing their job.
    I agree with Panjandrum--and I had exactly the same reaction, expecting free as something if the comma weren't there. While the meaning would still be clear when you've read the whole sentence, that's not the sole criterion, in my opinion; you also want to smooth the way for readers, not bring them up short and make them re-read to make sure of the meaning. Sometimes that's the helpful role played by punctuation, and it's less a matter of rules than of the writer's judgment.
    @ PHart

    Yes, you’ll need to use a comma before ‘as’ when you are using it to mean ‘beacuse’. Otherwise it would get used for comparison. Same is the case with ‘for’ and ‘since’ when used to mean ‘because’.

    The Oxford’s style guide, ‘New Hart’s Rules’, constantly sticks to it and you’ll find plenty of such usages in there, where a comma has been placed before ‘as’ when used in the meaning of ‘because’.

    The Wiktionary too supports this:

    As it’s too late, I quit.

    Here’s an example from the Oxford Dictionary of English:

    ‘I must stop now as I have to go out’

    Here, the ODE doesn’t use a comma (don’t know why!) but ‘New Hart’s Rules’ is much more focused on such issues and precise than the Oxford Dictionary of English and is meant to be a guide in these cases. (Refer this book for much more.)

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