by Lisbeth Eng
“To comma, or not to comma, that is the question!”
You will, I pray, excuse the ghastly usage in the above subtitle. The word “comma” is, of course, not a verb and should never be used as one. It is merely my poor attempt at wit, in the hope of grabbing your attention. Now that I have it, let us get on to the subject at hand.
One of the most common confusions about the use of commas is in a series. Consider the following sentences:
• The bride’s attendants included her sister, sister-in-law, cousin, and best friend.
• The bride’s attendants included her sister, sister-in-law, cousin and best friend.
The difference is the comma after the word “cousin.” Which sentence is correct? The answer is they both are.
When the last comma comes after the penultimate item in a series, it is known as an Oxford comma. Generally, newspapers and magazines omit the Oxford comma, whereas fiction and non-fiction books do not. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, and writers may choose either style, as long as they are consistent.
There are some instances where the Oxford comma is desirable, regardless of one’s usual preference. It may be necessary to avoid confusion such as in the following example:
• The menu choices were salmon, lobster, fish and chips, and halibut.
Here, the final comma makes it clear that fish and chips is one dish, not two.
Another source of confusion is whether to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction that combines two independent clauses. Independent clauses are phrases that can stand alone as complete sentences. Coordinating conjunctions include “and,” “or,” “but,” and “so.”
Generally, longer sentences combining independent clauses include the comma, while shorter ones do not:
• Benedict raised his hand to answer the question, but the teacher chose to ignore him.
• Julian laughed but Anna wept.
Often, comma use is indicated when a pause would naturally occur in a sentence. Read it carefully, and see if you can detect a pause. If a reader would need to take a breath, then a comma may be appropriate. In certain types of sentences there is a definitive rule on comma use, but in the case of coordinating conjunctions you may use your own judgment. (I will discuss subordinating conjunctions in a future column, as space here does not permit it.) Grammar is as much an art as a science, and grammarians sometimes vehemently disagree, much to the bewilderment of writers. Though most grammar rules are not open to opinion, we writers must navigate the murky waters between the ambiguous and the absolute.♥
Lisbeth Eng works as a Compliance Officer in the financial industry by day and writes historical romance by night. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English, and speaks a smattering of German, Italian and French. Please visit her at www.lisbetheng.com.