To comma, or not to comma?

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When I was in high school our English papers were graded harshly. If we used an extra comma or the wrong punctuation, we would lose one mark for each occurrence. I learned very quickly to pay attention to my writing and to ensure I didn’t use too many commas.

Times have changed, and it seems that the style of the day is to be more profuse with punctuation.

I’ve also learned that people take their grammar skills very personally and are often offended when you suggest a change.

In the summer of 2016 I wrote an article about changing our spacing after a period (it’s one space only!) and it garnered a lot of feedback as well as some flat-out refusals from people to make the change. They said things like, “That’s the way I was taught, and I’m not changing.”

If you want to be professional you need to keep your skills up-to-date. Refusing to change is very unprofessional.

The Oxford comma (or serial comma or Harvard comma) is yet another on the list of things that have generally changed, which people are getting very upset about. Just make a post on Facebook asking people if they like the Oxford comma and you will get a lot of opinions and anger!

That makes me laugh.

However, I love the Oxford comma in spite of being trained many years ago not to use it.

The Oxford/Harvard/serial/series comma is the comma that is placed immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more items.

For example, “I like my sandwiches with peanut butter, jam, and banana.” The Oxford comma is placed after jam (and before the coordinating conjunction and). If I had written that in high school I would have lost a mark. My teacher would have felt the sentence should be written as, “I like my sandwiches with peanut butter, jam and banana.”

In fact, both ways are correct; it is a matter of preference. A majority of the style guides mandate its use (APA Style, The Oxford Style Manual, The Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Manual, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the US Government Printing Office). However, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Canadian Press Stylebook advise against it. New Yorker and Harper’s magazine use it, whereas People and the National Enquirer do not.

I think that it is necessary, to avoid misunderstandings. In the example of my sandwich, not using the Oxford comma implies that I like two different types of sandwiches. Peanut butter sandwiches (one type) and jam-and-banana sandwiches (second type). Sandwiches are not a big deal, but let’s assume I wrote my will to say, “I leave my entire estate to my children Christopher, Patrick and Victoria.”

That would imply that Christopher gets 50 per cent and Patrick and Victoria share the other 50 per cent, when I really meant they should each get a third. In order to be clear (and leave each of them 33 per cent) I would write, “I leave my entire estate to my children, Christopher, Patrick, and Victoria.”

Since that provides the clarity I’m wanting, why wouldn’t I make all my writing that clear and just use the Oxford comma consistently? If I was reading something you wrote and you went back and forth using and not using the Oxford comma I would just think that your attention to detail and grammar wasn’t particularly good (and possibly even unprofessional). By always using it you would be consistent in your writing style and you would avoid ambiguity.

Doesn’t that just make sense? It is also more in line with the way I speak, as well. I have a pause in my speech where the punctuation would live, so I put the punctuation there.

I don’t want anyone to have to read anything I write (professional documentation or not) to be confused about what I mean. By using the Oxford comma, I will ensure you know that I like three different types of sandwiches: peanut butter, jam, and banana.

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7 thoughts on “To comma, or not to comma?”

  1. Oh, I agree 100% with you. I am partial to the punctuation rules I learned growing up. These were reinforced when I worked at our town’s largest newspaper and I had to proofread page. There, I learned about styles and have since adopted them as my own. The new one-space-after-a-period rule grates on my nerves, but I’ve learned to embrace it (after kicking and screaming for a while without anybody caring). I still struggle with putting a comma before the last word in a series, as you describe. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. After reading your post though, I believe I’ll adopt that too.

  2. Thank you for your post, Rhonda. As a non-native speaker I was taught as a child the “golden rule” of punctuation in English: “If you doubt, leave it out” (meaning comma)
    Your sandwich and heritage examples are absolutely great and I think I got a different way to look at certain sentence structures.
    Definitely I am going to adopt the Oxford comma 🙂

  3. I agree with you, Rhonda, on everything except your statement about putting punctuation where you pause. I find that people today use commas excessively to show a pause where one is not needed. Just because you take a breath doesn’t mean you need to add a comma. Otherwise, EXACTLY!

  4. It took me awhile, and I still slip-up, with one space vs. two. However, I’m definitely a comma person. I have found that when there aren’t commas, a statement can be more easily mis-understood. Mind you, excessive, commas, are truly, irritating.

  5. Why was the two spaces after a period done away with? I have been using two spaces for 30 years and now surprised to find I am not being professional to change?! I will now try to change and likewise with the comma back to putting it in before a conjunction.

    1. (Rhonda’s comment): The reason it changed was due to the fact of the spacing. Back when we had typewriters, each letter and space took the same amount of space. A w and an i were the same. When we moved to computers, all letters and spaces are different sizes, and the space gets a lot of space now so we don’t need two anymore.

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