Michille: The Comma

comma_PNG30The 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. I love 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:

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

After beating the rival team, the quarterback thanked his parents, God, and Ms. Trunchbull.
After beating the rival team, the quarterback thanked his parents, God and Ms. Trunchbull.

Of course, there is the standard comma humor, too:

Let’s eat, Grandma versus Let’s eat Grandma.
And Stop clubbing, baby seals.

In 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit chimed in on the Oxford Comma debate. The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued a dairy company in Portland, Maine for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: . . .”

What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them. Had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. The Court ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, “granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet and ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs.”The dairy company in settled the dispute for $5 million.

How do you feel about the comma?

5 thoughts on “Michille: The Comma

  1. Here’s a new one for your Oxford Comma battle, Michille. Here in the UK we have a new 50p coin that will come into circulation tomorrow to mark Brexit. It is inscribed “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.” Philip Pullman has taken to social media to declare that the absence of an Oxford comma means it should be boycotted by all literate people.

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51269012

  2. Pingback: Jilly: Level Up – Eight Ladies Writing

  3. As someone trained in AP style, I have to insert the obligatory, “If your sentence clarity is dependent upon a comma, you might consider re-writing it.” Associated Press style is kind of like the Unitarians of comma usage — if it’s necessary, use it. All for the greater good of clarity!

    I will say it’s important to be consistent. I’m not. In personal situations and blogging, I tend to be idiosyncratic — I put commas outside of scare-quotes as in British usage (even though I think it’s ugly), avoid the serial comma, but follow a lot of American (AP) usage. I’ve always told myself that if I ever write for traditional publication, I’ll follow their house style, even if it does include the serial comma.

    I haven’t really written for trad pub, but now I’m seriously thinking about it, and contemplating how much of a hassle it will be to go back and insert all the commas, and otherwise change my house style to another pub’s house style. So, now I’m seriously thinking about changing my house style to Chicago Manual and giving up my old habits.

    I don’t wanna!!!! But I have to face facts: the AP doesn’t publish a lot of fiction. And I don’t write a lot of facts.

    So, expect my comma usage on the blog to be all over the place until April. I hope to get my thinking straight by then.

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