The comma: how complicated could such a small, simple punctuation mark be? But, judging by the myriad misuses of the comma in the realm of the blogoshpere, it would seem to be quite complex indeed. In the past, you might have been told unreliable rules, such as, “Use commas the same way you use pauses when speaking,” or, “Just put them wherever. Who cares about Oxford?” So, in the spirit of rescuing the lowly comma, here are some usage tips:
Serial Commas and the Oxford Comma
One of the comma’s most infamous usage arguments, and one of its most straightforward, surrounds using the comma in lists. Commas separate items in a list, like in the sentence “Let’s see who’s coming… Zorbulon, Ramputor, Qylgan the Abominable… Who else?” Where’s the contention there? Well, grammarians continue to debate whether to use a comma before the final and in a list:
- “I know who’s coming: Zorbulon, Ramputor, Qylgan the Abominable, and Lawrence.”
- “I know who’s coming: Zorbulon, Ramputor, Qylgan the Abominable and Lawrence.”
The first sentence employs a comma before the and, which is known as the Oxford comma. In the above example, using the Oxford comma has virtually no impact on the meaning of the sentence, and, in fact, the tone can feel more casual without it—better to lighten the mood when referring to alien royalty. However, you should never doubt the importance of the Oxford comma.
- “I’m so excited to meet the Esteemed Lords of the Universe, Jennifer, and Lawrence!”
- “I’m so excited to meet the Esteemed Lords of the Universe, Jennifer and Lawrence!”
In the first sentence, it’s clear that there are three items in the list because of the final comma. But the second sentence reads as though Jennifer and Lawrence are the two Esteemed Lords of the Universe (and, between you and me, Lawrence and Jennifer are hardly esteemed). It might have a stodgy name, but the Oxford comma isn’t just pomp; it’s your friend.
Beware: once you know the rules for comma splices, you’ll start to see them everywhere, and your life will become a hell of frustrating grammar errors. So you might want to stop reading here.
For those brave enough to continue: comma splice errors are likely the most common comma errors. Take the following two sentences:
- “He sat perfectly still, and the T-Rex walked right by.”
- “He sat perfectly still, the T-Rex walked right by.”
The second sentence contains a comma splice, because it uses a comma to separate two complete sentences: “He sat perfectly still. The T-Rex walked right by.” To avoid comma splices, either couple your comma with a conjunction (e.g. but, and, or, etc.), or turn the first side of the sentence into a dependent clause.
- “He let out a hiccup, and the T-Rex swung its toothy maw towards him.”
- “After he let out a hiccup, the T-Rex swung its toothy maw towards him.”
Both the above sentences avoid a comma splice.
There’s More to Avoiding Comma Trauma
The disheartening truth is that, despite its apparent simplicity, the comma probably has the most governing rules of any punctuation mark. Oxford commas and comma splices are a start, but there’s so much more. If you want to write a clean, mean, and pristine blog, learn more about commas, as well as grammar and style in general, with the Blog Doctor.