Columnist . Joe Zeigler

Everything you need to know about “,”.

Comma Chameleon


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The diminutive comma is the subject of an inordinate amount of debate. In particular: When listing a series of items in a sentence, does one include a comma before the word “and” at the end of a list? Among persnickety people who discuss such things, this is known as the “Oxford comma.”

I have clients that are firmly entrenched at both ends of the argument: always “[comma] and…” or never “[comma] and…” Clients who pay their invoices in a timely manner are allowed to choose their preference and receive my grateful compliance.

When writing for myself, I am firmly entrenched in the middle. In some cases a comma before the last item in a series adds clarity and is, in my opinion, necessary. Otherwise, the inclusion or exclusion of a serial comma is at the writer’s  discretion.

According to the Oxford University Press, “The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.,” They should know. Oxford is the only university in the world named after a punctuation mark.

By definition, the Oxford comma is optional, included or excluded at the writer’s choice. In my view, the utility of a comma is dependent on context. For example: The 80’s revival included performances by Adam Ant, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Removing the last comma in this series could lead the reader to believe the concert debuted a new super-group formed of Echo, Siouxsie, Bunnymen, and Banshees. While this union might produce heretofore-unimagined musical possibilities, the comma placement clarifies that three acts appeared separately. In other musical news: Headbanging fans screamed above the hyper-amplified thrashing of Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth.

The absence of the Oxford comma here creates no ambiguity. On the other hand, inclusion would not alter the reader’s understanding. The writer gets to choose.

Finally: The aging metalheads carped that today’s bands are crap compared to Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple.

I am inclined to include the serial comma here. Since multiple words identify each item in the series, I argue that including the comma helps more clearly separate each complex item in the list. That said, I certainly would not disparage a writer who might exclude the comma before “and” in a similar instance.

When contemplating commas, my advice is for each writer to  punctuate in a style that most effectively communicates his or her intended meaning.

(Note: This column’s subtitle may elicit grins among readers who grew up in the 80’s. Younger readers may wish to Google “Boy George.”)


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