Comma Challenge: Oxford or AP?

oxford_university_press_commaBecause there are so many more words than there are punctuation marks, my posts tend to be heavy on the word-choice aspect of grammar.

This week, I give a nod to the comma, a punctuation mark we all likely use multiple times daily.

In particular, I want to talk about the comma when it separates elements in a series:

The sunset was orange, red and gold.
He likes math, physics and chemistry.
She called her mom, her brother and her aunt.

Note that a comma separates the first two elements of each sentence — orange, red … math, physics … her mom, her brother — but no comma separates the second element from the third. The conjunction and takes care of that.

Some writers prefer to see a comma before the conjunction and:

The sunset was orange, red, and gold.
He likes math, physics, and chemistry.
She called her mom, her brother, and her aunt.

That second comma is known as an Oxford comma (or serial comma), so named because it was traditionally used by printers, readers and editors at Oxford University Press. Today it’s considered optional by many grammar experts.

My primary resource for all things grammatical, The Associated Press Stylebook, says this about using commas in a series:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series:
The flag is red, white and blue.
He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction:
I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases:
The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

Using a comma with complex phrases makes sense. Consider why these phrases also require a comma (or rewriting) for clarity:

unclear:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Elton John.
This song is dedicated to my sons, Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon.

better:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Elton John.
This song is dedicated to my sons, Bruce Springsteen, and Jimmy Fallon.

better yet:
I love Lady Gaga, Elton John and my parents.
This song is dedicated to Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Fallon and my sons.

Although the fourth edition of the venerable The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White still suggests using a comma with and in a simple series of three, today’s writing tends to use less punctuation.

I often consider whether the reader should pause for understanding or clarity. If so, I insert a comma. If not, I follow AP guidelines.

As with many style aspects of writing — what you capitalize, what you italicize, what you abbreviate or write out — how you use commas is up to you. The key: be consistent.

You’ll find an alphabet of punctuation use — from apostrophes, dashes and ellipses to parentheses, quotation marks and semicolons, to name a few — in my recently published Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor. This link will take you to Amazon to order your paperback or ebook today, or ask for it at your local bookstore or library.

Reminder: Please remember to send me your grammar pet peeves no later than Friday, Oct. 7, for posting on Tuesday, Oct. 11. No names will be included.

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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