Most of us have seen it on a bumper sticker, meme, or tee shirt:
“Let’s eat Grandma.”
“Let’s eat, Grandma.”
“Punctuation saves lives.”
We may need a moment to figure out the humor in the last line, but it usually gets a chuckle. There’s a huge difference in what’s being communicated (family cannibalism versus a polite invitation to share a meal) all because of a simple comma. According to a 2019 study in the journal English Today, the comma is the most often used punctuation mark in nonfiction, and comes in a close second to the period in fiction writing, so understanding how to use it meaningfully is a worthwhile goal for any writer.
Although there are many guidelines about how to use a comma, the most common reasons fall into four categories. I’ll cover one of those reasons below, explain it, and give some examples. You’ll need to come back later to read about the other three reasons to use commas. In no time, you’ll be more confident about when to use commas to strengthen your own writing.
In a List—this is the easiest guideline, and it’s one most of us understand, at least in a basic way. When you have more than two items in a series, you need to separate them with commas, adding an “and” before the last item. The problem comes when we try to figure out whether to use a comma before the “and.” This last comma is the crux of the whole “Oxford comma” debacle. Many decades ago, Oxford University Press insisted that the comma before the last “and” was the only proper way to write. However, as in all aspects of the English language, usage changes over time. More recently many writers feel that the last comma is unnecessary and a waste of their time.
Example of an Oxford comma: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon.”
Example without the Oxford comma”: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast and bacon.”
Both examples are easy to understand, and they communicate the same information. However, there are times that the Oxford comma is needed to clarify the writer’s meaning.
Example without the Oxford comma causes confusion: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo and Tristan.”
Example with the Oxford comma: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo, and Tristan.”
In the first of these last two examples, the writer may be telling us that the parents’ names are Margo and Tristan, or the writer may be thanking at least four separate people—parents (which could be two or more people), someone named Margo, and someone named Tristan. In the second example we can be assured that the writer is thanking more people than just his or her parents. You may be thinking that such a small difference in meaning is really just splitting hairs, but perhaps a more humorous example can reinforce my message.
Example without the Oxford comma: The guest speaker addressed the gang members, the mayor and the police chief. Without the second comma before the “and,” we may think that the mayor and police chief have a criminal record!
I admit I’m an Oxfordian, preferring to use the comma before the “and” to avoid any possible confusion, but I’m magnanimous in conceding that a writer may decide to withhold that final comma before the “and” and still be a competent, accomplished communicator. The best advice is to follow what your publisher’s style guide dictates. If a specific style guide is to be applied, you don’t have to even consider which you prefer. If you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours, but apply your choice consistently! No sloppy punctuation, please!