Some Thoughts on Commas and Rules

I have a confession. I don’t care about the Oxford comma.

It’s OK with me if you want to use it. It’s also OK with me if you want to follow what I think of as the newspaper rule (because it’s in the AP stylebook) and only use it if the sentence would otherwise be confusing.

For those who are not of the writing or editing professions and who do not follow the heated debates about this issue on Twitter, the Oxford comma is the comma that appears just before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items. It’s also called the serial comma.

Under the newspaper rule, you generally don’t put a comma there.

Here’s a sentence with the Oxford comma:

I like persimmons, strawberries, and grapefruit.

Here’s the same sentence without it:

I like persimmons, strawberries and grapefruit.

As far as I’m concerned, either version is fine. There’s no confusion either way.

Generally, the only sentences where you need to deliberately include or omit that comma are ones where the words divided by the “and” could be taken as describing the previous words.

So for example:

“I only go to the movies with my cousins, Dick, and Jane” does not mean the same thing as “I only go to the movies with my cousins, Dick and Jane.”

In the first sentence, “cousins,” “Dick,” and “Jane” are all separate categories. In the second, Dick and Jane are the names of my cousins.

If you mean the first, you need that final comma. If you mean the second, that final comma is wrong.

Actually, this rule isn’t really about commas. It’s about the fact that sometimes something that looks like a list isn’t. And if it’s not a list, then you need to use commas differently.

The famous example about commas is the title of Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. While I gather Truss discusses the Oxford comma in the book, that punctuation rule has nothing to do with the title because the confusion is related to whether there’s a comma after “eats.”

Again, this really isn’t about commas. It’s about the fact that “shoots” and “leaves” are words that can be read as either nouns or verbs, depending on context.

A panda eats shoots and leaves. Shoots and leaves are food, therefore nouns. This is not a list of actions taken by the panda, but rather two objects of the verb eats.

A panda that eats, shoots and leaves (or eats, shoots, and leaves, depending on your Oxford comma preference) would be one hell of a panda, given that I don’t think their paws are well shaped for holding a gun.

It is, perhaps, not a great example (except that there’s a joke about it), but it does make it clear that a comma after eats changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

Despite not being passionate about the Oxford comma or, indeed, about any number of other highly prescriptive grammar rules, I have, in fact, worked professionally as a copy editor.

So I understand that publications need to have a consistent style. I am glad to defer to publication style rules about such things as the Oxford comma or whether the first word after a colon should be capitalized. And while I actively dislike the way an m-dash looks when it touches each word—like this—I put up with it even though in my personal stylebook it is done with spaces — you know, like that.

These rules make the publication look consistent and, most importantly for me the writer, they don’t interfere with the meaning of what I have written.

The only things I was passionate about as a copy editor were whether the piece I was editing was accurate and whether it made sense. That meant making sure that the author or reporter had the facts right and that each sentence, each paragraph, and the piece as a whole got the information across clearly.

And yeah, I was supposed to make sure it conformed to the publication’s stylebook. I mostly did that, but as far as I’m concerned, getting the facts right and saying things clearly trump strict style rules every day of the week.

English is a complicated language. I blame that on the fact that it is a mashup of several other languages and so adaptable that it incorporates words from other languages all the time.

(Let me just note that “rupee” was the answer to the Wordle the other day. I’m sure it became part of the English language due to the British occupation of India, but it didn’t start as an English word.)

(I should also note that I did get the Wordle right that day. Like most English speakers, I do know those words that once weren’t English but now are.)

I’d argue that the complexity of English is a strong argument against strict grammar rules. It’s really difficult to make strict rules in a language that has so many exceptions built in.

I will also confess that I learned to diagram sentences back in the seventh grade and loved it. We did it as competitions, rather than for grades, and it taught me the bones and joints of sentences.

Strict grammar rules never helped me at all, but approaching grammar by looking at how to create a readable sentence did me a lot of good.

The key to good grammar — and to the effective use of bad grammar — is understanding why you do something. Rules without context never work for me.

This applies to many other things besides grammar.

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