The Quintessential Comma

Like salt on your food, the common comma is noticed only for its absence or over-abundance in writing.  Yet article after article and book after book elevate this little dot with a squiggly tail to center stage.  People fight over how it’s used, when and where to pop one into a sentence, and whether or not there are specific rules to follow when using one.

A quick Google search revealed over 400 million articles on “comma.” I have a minimum of six books where this lowly punctuation mark is highlighted and fretted over. Now, if I could only memorize the content of those books, I wouldn’t be here wishing I knew for a certainty that I put that mark in just the right places at the right times.

One of my favorite books that includes discussions of the lowly comma is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Reading the joke on the back cover is enough to draw you into her book, but she even goes so far as to give you a punctuation repair kit with 24 commas in it. Wow!

There are lots of ways to properly use a comma. In fact, there are too many ways to go over in one blog post.  But let’s take a look at one today:

THE OXFORD, or HARVARD, or SERIAL COMMAOxford comma, Oxford, and Harvard

When I was growing up and writing my stories in Miss Halsey’s second grade class (and yes, back then it was still “Miss” and not “Ms.”), my classmates and I were taught that when you write a bunch of items in a row, they should be separated with commas.

“But not before the AND,” said Miss Halsey.  “The AND takes the place of the comma.”  When you’re seven or eight, life is all about soaking information in, not questioning it.  So I have almost always written “she wore a red, white and blue outfit to the Independence Day parade.”

Then along came the editors and printers at Oxford University Press.  They made the style decision to put a comma in the list even when the conjunctions were there.  They claimed it was for clarity when items were not single words, but I think it was because there was some guy named Cornelius Crumbakker who lived alone, and dreamed of wild nights in the Fuji Islands, and who said he loved nothing more than the dazzling beauty of a comma.  The comma reminded him of his mother’s eyes on those rare occasions when she smiled and showed her delight in Cornelius’s brilliance as a typesetter.

Okay, so I just got carried away.  Oxford University Press has a point: “She wore a red and white scarf, a blue and yellow skirt, and green and gold shirt to the “come as you are” party.

Apparently, the folks in the northeast of the U.S.A. couldn’t really acknowledge the people across the pond having any sort of grammatical superiority, so they refer to this same style of comma use as “the Harvard comma.”  It is the same little comma, packaged for U.S. marketplaces.  Personally, I’m wondering when we’ll start seeing the same thing called “the University of Michigan comma” or perhaps “the Fighting Irish comma.”  Hopefully, we’ll never see a “Trojan comma,” for who could trust such an item?  It may be fooling us into a false sense of security, only to come out at night and multiply commas all over our works.  Disaster could happen then!

Now, for those of us not really into University-named punctuation marks, “the serial comma” might do.  Unfortunately, when I see the word “serial” I’m expecting murder to follow, and that just brings too many silly images to mind.


Although either the use or non-use of a serial comma is correct, publishers of fiction are in flux over whether or not to use it.  Be sure to check with your publisher for style guidance.  I think, however, the only really terrible mistake is to be inconsistent.  Choose to go with or go without this serial comma, then use that style in every instance.

Me? I’m going with the Oxford comma, because it is fun to say, easy to use, and Miss Halsey is no longer reading my papers.

Where and how do you use the comma?  Any favorite comma stories to share?

A dragon writing down punctuation marks

Heh, heh, heh!

Have a good, happy, safe, comma-riddled, and grammar monster kind of day.


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