Michille: The Comma

Oxford CommaThe comma is my friend. Too friendly. I use too many of them when I write. We all learned in elementary school when to use a comma in the basic sense: in lists, to separate clauses, to enclose parenthetical words/phrases, between adjectives, before quotations, in dates, etc. One of my favorite writer websites if Writers Write and they have a series they call Punctuation for Beginners which goes up on Tuesdays. In general, I like to noodle around on grammar sites for refreshers as it’s been a while since I learned grammar. Yesterday, the post was All About Commas. I learned a little about writing, but mostly I found the humor.

I think my biggest problem is the parenthetical word/phrase use. I put a lot of parenthetical information in my writing for clarification and that requires a comma. Until I looked over that post and then dug a little deeper, I realized that I could use the comma as a flag to edit (well, as another way to edit). If I examine the use of commas in a sentence, and I’ve stuck in clarifying information that could be written another way with even more clarity – Voila! – better writing.

A woman that I work with refuses to use The Oxford Comma. We have good-natured arguments on a fairly regular basis (she is also a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and I’m a Baltimore Ravens fan so we argue about more than the comma). The Oxford Comma is defined, in the Oxford Dictionary, as “an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.” I send her any memes I come across that make the Oxford Comma critical to the meaning of the sentence in a funny way, like (pics not included):

After beating the Steelers, Tim Tebow thanked his parents, God, and Ms. Trunchbull.
After beating the Steelers, Tim Tebow thanked his parents, God and Ms. Trunchbull.

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Of course, there is the standard comma humor, too:
Let’s eat, Grandma versus Let’s eat Grandma.
And “Stop clubbing, baby seals.”

I could go on and on with the funny stuff, but you get the idea and I’m sure you’ve seen these all over the ‘net. Do you have favorite grammar humor? Or a problem with being too free with your punctuation?


2 thoughts on “Michille: The Comma

  1. LOL, I have VERY strong feelings about commas, but in my middle age, I’ve settled into a sort of agnostic complaisance.

    In college, I learned AP style, which shuns the serial comma as a space-waster. And to tell the truth, that’s the style I prefer and mostly use.

    But, I am familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines, and I have a copy to remind me of the details. In the U.S., most book publishers and many magazines follow a style similar to the CMOS.

    The biggest thing is, if a serial comma matters, the writer has probably written it wrong. There are cases, you know, where the serial comma messes with the meaning. For example, just make that stripper singular, and . . . we invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin. The commas — are they serial or parenthetical??

    My argument is that if a spy-fleck on your paper or screen can change the meaning of your sentence, you may want to re-evaluate the sentence.

    Aside from the serial comma, though, I am too friendly with commas too. I was proof-reading a book that had been professionally published (the writer bought back the rights, and was cleaning it up self-publishing as an ebook). Nearly the first sentence I came across was, “A long silver groundcar was pulling into the . . . .” I really thought there needed to be a comma between “long” and “silver” and to be honest, I don’t quite grasp the arguments for why there is not. I would have to refer back to the CMOS (which is not here at the moment).

    Actually, proof-reading those few chapters was a really interesting exercise. The writer herself “writes clean” and the text had gone through professional editing. Every time I questioned something, I opened up the CMOS (which is a big, heavy book, ugh. I should have bought the digital version). Boy, I got really, really friendly with the CMOS during the three weeks I did this project. I highly recommend the exercise. Take a bit of published work, and read through it with a copy editor’s eye. Any time you have a little twinge of doubt, look the damn thing up, and stick a post-it note in that space in your style-guide. By the end, you’ll have some idea of your weaknesses.

    I did come away with a much clearer feeling for commas and adverbial phrases. LOL.

    (Boy, I was hyper-aware of the commas when I posted this; I bet I’ve got a dozen other-mistakes in grammar and spelling and stuff in here, LOL.)

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