Annie On Writing

September 14, 2012

The humble comma

Filed under: Articles From write anything,Writing Tools — Annie Evett @ 12:04 am
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I spend most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out – Oscar Wilde.

Commas are one of those grammatical tools which appear to be simple to use, but the more one delves into their precise application, the greyer the definitions tend to be.

When asked about the rules and usage of a comma, most people will identify the rule they learnt at school “If you need to take a breathe, put in a comma”. Although fair in theory, this rule does not always work well with the internal reader. Commas are meant to add meaning, rather than a breathing activity. Upon research, exploring other writing sites, grammatical rules books and literature texts, it would appear that the top three Common Comma Rules are clear cut.

Common Comma Rule 1# Separate lists With so many ways to make them work for your sentence, the most common usage for a comma is to separate lists of things.

i.e I went to the Smiggle Shop and bought five erasers, three bendy pencils, a sharpener in the shape of a sheep and a fluffy pencil case.

Common Comma Rule 2# Joining separate sentences Many grammar texts tell us that a comma aught to be used to separate two main clauses which are connected by a co-ordinating conjunction. All that basically means is that two separate thoughts can hang out in a sentence together if they invite words such as ‘and’, but, ‘because’ ‘or’ ‘if’, ‘so’.

ie. James read the book. He didn’t like it.

Adding a comma makes it read thus

James read the book, but didn’t like it.

There is a school of thought that the comma is not required before the conjunction. Though this rule is basically solid, the foundations have unsettled.

Common Comma Rule 3# Clarifying Information

Commas are normally used to help define or clarify statements after nouns. They have been seen as the sort of punctuation mark that doesn’t draw attention to itself and allow sentences to flow naturally.

i.e My sister Julie will come and pick up the tables later.

This sentence reads alot better with the inclusion of commas.

My sister, Julie, will come and pick up the tables later.

These three rules may be all well and good, but the guidelines start to get wobbly around the edges, particularly with a breed of comma known as the Oxford Comma, Harvard Comma or the Series Comma. Regardless of its name, this comma is used when there is a list of items which need clarification. A comma is placed immediately before a co-ordinating conjunction as well as before the last item in the list.

i.e For breakfast, I had eggs, toast and orange juice (without the serial comma it looks like I ate toast dipped in orange juice.)

For breakfast, I had eggs, toast, and orange juice.

Of all the comma usage rules, the Serial Comma sparks the most interest and debate. There are strong cases both for and against its use. Many writers will use the serial comma because its consistent with the normal practice of their genre or style, that it flows naturally with the spoken word and that it clarifies any potential misunderstandings within the list of items or events noted.

There are editors who do not use the Serial Comma as they believe it is inconsistent and goes against conventional practice and rules, that the use of too many commas have the potential of introducing ambiguity, that the use of ‘and’ is the accepted separation between final items on a list. Often when space within a printed text is a consideration, the use of excess commas adds significantly to the length of the work.

Research into the guidelines surrounding commas brought up dozens of hard and fast rules. It is acknowledged that mentioning only three does a huge diservice to the humble punctuation mark.

A little lighthearted humour is intended with the poster highlighting the use of the Serial comma. This picture is from the Oxford Comma poster by aeferg available on Etsy.


What has your experience been with commas, in particular the Serial Comma?


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