Comma drama

In my last post I recommended creating blog topics out of the questions you are most frequently asked. Hands down, people ask me about commas more than anything else. 

Let's break it down

The serial or Oxford comma: It comes between every item in a list. "Beatrice ate all of the carrots, peas, and mashed potatoes."

The AP comma: The Associated Press (AP) Style guide is used in the newspaper and occasionally the advertising business. It does not require a final comma in a list. "Beatrice ate all of the carrots, peas and mashed potatoes."

The If clause/conditional clause: "If I don't take the grocery list with me, I'm sure to forget something at the store."

The and comma: Use a comma before any coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet). "She woke to a sunny day, yet took her umbrella with her any way."

The Shatner comma: Basically, this is where a natural pause would occur when the sentence is spoken aloud. A good pause heightens the drama, lends gravitas. "The Shatner Comma," not a real term, just editor humor, but still a real comma.

"Intuition, however illogical, Mr. Spock, is recognized as a command prerogative."*

Yes, there are more comma rules, but let's not bore you with them here. 

People become very attached to their comma theories, and hold onto their position with fervor. When I worked at a curriculum publisher, irate parents would call us wanting to debate comma usage. Yes, apparently being the homeschooling mother of three does not provide enough challenge. One must send lengthy emails debating comma usage, and hence, the term "comma drama" was coined.

The number one goal of writing anything is to communicate clearly. Your goal is to make people understand you. Rules take second place to clarity. 

If it is correct, but looks horrible, don't do it. For instance, I was recently sent a screen shot of something like this: Apples, Peaches & Pears. The question was,"should I use a comma after the ampersand?" If everywhere else you were using the Oxford, or serial comma, the answer would be "yes." But that just looks awful, so leave it off.

Please, please, please don't use the comma as an excuse for run-on sentences, you know who is most guilty of this? Academics are the most guilty of this, because, at some point, in their education, they got the impression that writing very long sentences, and very dense paragraphs made them look super smart, when it only serves to make their writing turgid and horrendously boring to the average reader, who is stuck reading, and won't retain a darn thing, and the writer's goal is probably to be intimidating, anyway. 

And one more thing. Don't over punctuate. People who are, rightfully concerned, about the quality of their work often feel they need to throw in more punctuation – to be taken seriously. I once worked with a talented writer who placed commas in every sentence, often many commas in a sentence. Way too many commas. One day, I became so frustrated with deleting his commas, I walked out of my office, stood in the hall, and yelled, "Enough with the superfluous punctuation already!"

*Special thanks to Steven Freedman for his wise guidance on this post. 

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