Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, (Oxford) Comma Chameleon

5 years ago

Ho there!

Of all the many sources of debate and eye-rolling in the notorious world of punctuation and grammar, perhaps nothing is more contentious than the humble comma. Endless words have been spilled in the pursuit of commaeic* rectitude; grammatical friendships that have lasted decades have fractured and split. It is the Rorke’s Drift of punctuation; the Waterloo of the English sentence.

Where’s, the problem?

Part of it is due to the sheer bewildering complexity of the thing. The comma organises lists, precedes conjunctions, and follows gerunds and interjections; it stands in for repeated words and introduces speech; it brackets parenthetical terms. Out of sheer confusion, people transpose it from one rule to another (for example, by placing a comma before any use of and, whatever the context) or use it simply to draw breath, with no grammatical reason whatsoever. People feel lost with commas. A co-worker of mine, many years ago, sent me an email to check, and I chiefly corrected the commas; she asked me what the rules for commas were and I said, breezily, “give me a minute and I’ll put them in an email,” and then I realised it was an hour later and I was still typing.

And so many of those rules are contingent. Newspaper style guides put commas every old place, and have a rule for every situation; it makes it easier, goes the thinking, to make everything nice and consistent. Most prose style guides barely touch on the things, and prefer to leave them in the hands of the individual writer. America’s got one set of common rules, and Britain another, and neither of them are wholly consistent.

And who can blame them? It’s not like a lot of lexical issues, where at least you have a millennium of usage to pick over and debate; commas didn’t even exist in English until the sixteenth century, and most of the rules surrounding them weren’t firmed up until the twentieth. It was Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker in the 1930s, who founded most of the rules we now consider serious comma business.

So what, should I, do?

So, okay, here’s my advice. Pick up a good style guide and read through the rules for commas. Get to know them. Then throw away your style guide† and play it by ear. Literally, in fact; what sounds good? What makes the reader pause in the right places?

If you want hard and fast rules, here are my entirely arbitrary and subjective suggestions. Try them on for size:

  • Listing. Failing to encomma‡ a list (more on this in a moment) is probably a cardinal sin.
  • Preceding speech. Yeah, some people treat this as a bit more arbitrary, but I’ve got used to this. I doubt you can get away with not doing it.
  • Parenthetical text. A parenthetical passage is an aside, as in My car, once I’d filled the tank, ran perfectly. The basic rule is, if you could neatly excise the phrase and not break the sentence, it’s a parenthesis. Surprisingly often, you can get away without any punctuation at all; other times, en-dashes around the parenthesis works. But if you do use commas, you always have to use two commas, beginning and end. Embrace embracing your words.
  • Preceding a conjunction. When joining two clauses together, I would suggest you need commas. They go before the conjunction (but, so, because, and, etc.) and create a natural brief pause.
  • Following a modifier or gerund. So this refers to a bit at the beginning of the sentence that modifies the sentence, but isn’t otherwise part of it. I like commas here, but I’ve read convincing prose that did away with it.
Genuinely unimportant
  • Every other use. Just go with it; find your voice. Me, I like commas. If I’m editing your work, I’ll probably slip a load of the feckers in. But it’s a matter of style, and of taste. Be bold in your choices.

So what’s with, the Oxford comma?

Ah, yes; the point of this article. The Oxford comma, serial comma or Harvard comma. So, for the sake of the theoretically-possible-but-who-are-we-kidding-here intersection of “people who read grammar blogs” and “people who don’t know what an Oxford comma is,” here’s the skinny.

  • If you list two objects, you just use a conjunction: There’s pizza or chicken for dinner.
  • If you list more than two objects, you could just keep using conjunctions: My mistake; there’s pizza or chicken or burgers for dinner.
  • But that’s considered poor form. Rather, you cut all conjunctions bar the last one, and substitute commas for the others: Come to think of it, we have take-out menus as well, so there’s pizza, chicken, burgers –
  • But what to do with the conjunction? There’s never been agreement on this. Some hold that the comma serves in place of a conjunction, and so the comma itself is unnecessary when you reach the conjunction: – pizza, chicken, burgers or Indian.
  • While some hold that every item in the list needs a comma, conjunction be damned: – pizza, chicken, burgers, or Indian.

And that last comma there? That's the Oxford comma.

And here’s the thing. In spite of (or just possibly because of) the fact that neither use has ever had clear precedence, and neither has anything to recommend it over the other, this is far and away the most contentious, the most hotly-argued rule in punctuation. Blood has been shed over this shit, man.

Most bizarre, both sides give as their main argument that their use is less ambiguous than the other! Let’s crack out the examples. So the classic example is this one, proposed by Teresa Nielsen Hayden in her work Making Book:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Clear problem, right? Obviously this sentence could be referring to four different people, or it could be referring to just two (and the author has an extraordinarily unlikely ancestry). The Oxford comma here would do a world of good.

But consider a slight variation:

To my mother, Ayn Rand and God.

Here, the addition of a comma would create confusion, making us wonder whether the author is the offspring of a libertarian icon. Obviously best to do without.

So what should, we do David? TELL, US.

Well, here’s the thing. I don’t think you can make a ruling on it without crippling yourself. The usual advice is to pick a stance – always Oxford or never Oxford – and apply it consistently either way, and that’s fine. My only suggestion, if you do take this approach? Be prepared to rewrite. Make the sentence work for the rule you’ve made and don’t let yourself get into trouble.

But for my money? Fuck it, life’s too short. Your prose is your voice; you decided what to say, and you had a reason for it. It’s unworthy to be rewriting to fit an arbitrary rule that has no justification for existing in the first place. When you hit a list, decide then and there what creates clarity and what reads better, and everyone can fuck off out the window.

But more than anything, ignore the shit out of anyone who insists either rule is self-evidently better than the other. Balls to them.



As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.


*It’s a word if I say it is, dammit.

†A good style guide makes acceptable toilet paper and outstanding firelighters.

‡Like I told you: my blog, my words.