Writers’ Postbox: Episode 6

Comma Drama

Commas. Indecisive little buggers.

Commas in numbers, commas in names, quotational commas, commas before conjunctions, parenthetical commas, commas after interjections, commas in series, restrictive commas, adjective commas, comma faults (!).

Commas, commas everywhere.

I took a little editing test last night, and as I poured over each and every comma placement, I thought there just might be a good Writers’ Postbox episode in there. Then, this afternoon as I was critiquing a friend’s manuscript, there they were again. Misused and misplaced. Sigh. Suspicion confirmed.

Sure, commas often have concrete, specific jobs – indisputable even (March 25, 1999) – but sometimes they’re asked to hop into service here, and not there (Milk, bread and eggs? Milk, bread, and eggs? ). John says you need one, but Sally forbids it. What gives?

Same rule, different style.

The serial comma is the most common comma faux pas. Probably because no one agrees on whether or not to use it! A serial comma is simply a comma in series. You might think of it as the Oxford comma (sniff), the list-y comma (whatever works), or the comma that prevents you having to speak all seventeen ands when you’re listing off the ingredients in Great Aunt Kiki’s famous chicken rub. Whatever you call it, its function remains the same. Its one and only job is to separate items in a list, without having to put in a million ands (or ors). It was a good idea, whoever first came up with it.

The confusion comes in at the end. We all know that when we rattle off a list of anything, we throw one single and (or or) in there at the end, maybe to signify we’re all done, or maybe just to remind poor little and that he’s still needed.

  • I got on Amazon to order fish oil supplements, a windshield repair kit[,] and seven reams of printer paper.
  • Would you please wash the cat, cook the beans, stack the chickens[,] and quiz the children on their comma skills?

Of course there’s a need for an and. But what about that last comma? Does it belong there or not? It’s no surprise we’re confused, really. We may do a lot of reading, but if any of that reading is done in the journalism sector – newspapers, especially – any resolve we had to use the serial comma boldly just like our favorite authors quickly melts in the face of heinous journalistic crimes against the comma.

For you see, most newspapers, many magazines, and a handful of other ‘journalistic’ publications adhere to AP Style. And AP Style dictates the omission of the last serial comma, the one before our and. 

The rest of the world uses some amalgamation of Chicago Style and common sense. According to the Chicago Style folks, you throw that comma in there unless it creates confusion.

Why the difference? The best explanation I’ve heard is all about real estate. Newspapers are all about brevity. State the facts, ma’am. No wordiness, no flowery language, just spit it out there. Back in the day of typesetters, those poor blokes had to hand-place each and every print block for each and every letter. And comma. They valued efficiency in language. And commas.

So the AP Style says: leave that one out. It just ain’t necessary. Unless it is. Common sense must be employed. Mignon Fogarty uses the great example:

  • I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God. 

Unless this author was truly begotten of Ms. Rand and the Almighty, the omission of the serial comma here creates some confusion.

So, unless you are writing for someone, like the local paper, who requires you to use AP Style, go ahead and utilize your serial comma at every opportunity. Some would even say that in the event that your concrete use of the serial comma could create some sort of confusion, you should just rewrite the sentence to avoid the horrible decision on whether or not to stick to your serial guns. I would say confusion is sometimes more fun that clarity.

‘Til next week,
KJ

 

 

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