In my work as an editor, there is one punctuation mark that never fails to cause confusion and frustration: that tricksy little comma. It is the one punctuation mark most often associated with a literary style—the Loki of the grammatical world, if you would, for its tendency to appear in some works and disappear in others. The Brits and the Yanks differ on when and how often it should be used. A ‘slip of the comma’ could drastically (and unintentionally) alter the meaning of a sentence. In the age of blogging and texting, both your average Jane and the editors of the OED are asking themselves, “Do I really need to put a comma there?”
Alas, there is no easy answer. Other than “follow your style guide” of course. Among editors, debates over the placement of a comma have been known to ignite battles that rage on into the wee hours. (Yes, these are the things we fight about.) If you don’t believe me, just go to any editing forum and type the words “Oxford comma” into the search engine. The trend these days is to eliminate as many as possible, unless you’re one of those dig-your-heels-in, old-school types who poo-poo the notion that grammar, like people, evolves. (And if you’re a foreign language student who just wants to nail something, anything down as an official rule, I feel your pain.)
So where is the line between changing with the times and maintaining some kind of rules, some kind of order? Thankfully, that’s a bit beyond the purview of this post! But I can offer a few helpful hints that will make your life a whole lot easier. (Seriously, though, follow your style guide.)
1. All right, let’s jump in with both feet. I’m a believer in the Oxford comma. It’s true. Un-follow me if you must.
For those of you who have no idea what that is—and I imagine there are many, since, unlike me, you have a life—the Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the ‘and’ in a list of things. For example: “My car has red, white, and blue stripes.” The Oxford, or serial, comma is the one between ‘white’ and ‘and’, which some style guides instruct you to omit if it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.
The most famous example that illustrates why the Oxford comma can’t always be omitted is a very bad joke (cribbed from Wikipedia):
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
So unless you want a panda to shoot up your café and make a hasty exit, you need to add a comma between ‘shoots’ and ‘and’. But since there is no confusion if you omit the comma between ‘white’ and ‘blue’ in the earlier example, many fine editors believe that you should proceed with caution and only use the Oxford comma when there is a chance for misunderstanding, otherwise leave it out.
I am not one of those editors. My reasons are simple: if something could be considered wrong by omitting a punctuation mark, but will always be correct if it is included, then always include it and you will never run the risk of being wrong. Commas are complicated enough. Shouldn’t we all give ourselves a break?
2. One of the big new trends that I’m on board with is removing superfluous commas, i.e. ones that don’t add to the understanding or meaning of a sentence, but are more akin to taking a breath. For instance, the tradition of adding a comma after ‘so’, ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘now’, etc. You see this especially in dialogue: “Now, that’s not what I meant!” or “So, what do you think of that?”
Out, damned comma, out! They serve no purpose; they don’t affect meaning. The trend in Shakespeare’s time might have been to use punctuation for emphasis, but in our “no 1 curr”, text-and-blog society, those commas have gone the way of the dodo.
Speaking of dodos, a very old-fashioned style is to put the comma after the conjunction in a sentence, not before. Nowadays, this is not a matter of style—it’s just plain wrong. It’s not, “I went to the store but, forgot my wallet.” It’s, “I went to the store, but forgot my wallet.” If you need a refresher on conjunctions—or any excuse to break out some Schoolhouse Rock—here’s a cool video:
3. This last tip I think about every day of my life, I kid you not. My grammar guru Frances Peck turned me on to it, and I will be forever grateful to her.
Say you have some adjectives that you want to use to modify a noun. Adjectives that haven’t been created equal. Some are hyphenated. Some are colors. Some form a unit with the noun. Which should go first? Which should be separated by a comma? Say you have a phrase like, “That scrawny, crass, no-good, two-timing, lazy lummox of a man” or “The gray cashmere sweater” or “The robust antique desk”. Is there a rule of thumb that can help you figure out which of those adjectives should be separated by commas and which shouldn’t? (I bet you can see where this is going…)
There is! These two types of adjectives are called ‘coordinate’ and ‘cumulative’. The trick to telling them apart is absurdly simple. There are two steps:
A – Insert the word ‘and’ between each of the adjectives. This determines if they both modify the noun in the same way. For example, can you say, “That scrawny and crass and no-good and two-timing and lazy lummox of a man”? Yes. On to Step B…
B – Try reversing the order of the adjectives and see if the meaning is the same. For example: “That lazy, two-timing, crass, no-good, scrawny lummox of a man”. Is the meaning the same? Yes. So all of the adjectives in that sentence modify ‘lummox’ in the same way, and therefore each should be separated by a comma.
Using the same two steps can also identify cumulative adjectives, which must retain a certain order to make sense. Usually, the adjective closest to the noun becomes a sort of group with the noun, and the other adjective is modifying that group, not just the noun itself.
For example: “The robust antique desk”. It passes the first test, “The robust and antique desk”, but fails the second, “The antique, robust desk”. Therefore, no comma.
Bonus tip: Never use a comma when a color is one of the adjectives that precedes your noun. “The gray cashmere sweater”. “The frail white tulip”. “The vast blue sky”. Colors are always cumulative. For even more detailed info on the order of adjectives before the noun and the Royal Order of Adjectives, check out this fantastic blog: http://zencomma.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/commas-between-adjectives/
Commas, like a pesky weed, may live to menace us, but common sense and careful pruning can keep them from growing wild.