Three Comma Rules You Need to Learn Now! NO MORE EXCUSES!

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Something terrible has happened; teachers are actually instructing their students to drop the comma before the word and in sentences that use serial (or list) commas. I learned this today while talking to a coworker about some corrections he made to document. When I asked him why, he said his college professor had told him never to put a comma there, and she actually graded him down for doing so.

Sensing this was “a teachable moment,” I walked back to my desk to get my Chicago Manual of Style and The Little, Brown Compact Handbook to show this misled chap the right way. The worst part of it all is that, unlike so many of my victims, eh em, students, this guy cared to get it right. He had truly learned what his professor told him and acted on this knowledge without question. It got me thinking, how many others out there have been confused in this way?

Though most of my own teachers and professors had advocated the comma before and, I’d had a couple teachers who told me that sometimes the comma was not necessary, but no one ever bothered to clarify. Teachers only said to pick one and be consistent, and I can’t remember any who graded me down for using one or the other.  Now, this seems like such a cop-out, and I wished they’d been more clear. Then there was this crazy prof my coworker had… my goodness, what was her problem? Never use a comma? Someone must have pissed her off once about this whole comma thing, and now she was taking it out on whole classrooms full of malleable minds. Inexcusable.

This seems like a perfect opportunity to make a stand and nail down at least three comma rules once and for all. Since I made such a stink about it, let’s start with this rule:

Use a comma between items in a series or list. 

The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed., states that “items in a series are normally separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage.” As you may or may not remember, conjunctions “hook up” words and phrases. The most common conjunctions can be remembered with the acronym FANBOYS.

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

In most sentences requiring a serial comma, you’ll see and, or, and nor used most often.

The Little, Brown Compact Handbook, 5th ed., states that a comma must be used between “three or more items of equal importance. These items may be words, phrases, or clauses.” The book does not specify about conjunctions, but it does mention that some writers might omit the final comma. However, it does not explain why or in what cases the comma can be omitted. This definitely leads to uncertainty.

Here’s a classic example of how this comma is used:

Taylor went to the store to buy apples, bananas, and oranges.

Here, the comma before the and is in place, and the message is quite clear. There are, however, other ways to write this sentence. Consider:

Taylor went to store to buy apples, bananas, oranges.

This is not wrong, just awkward, as is the comma-free alternative:

Taylor went to the store to buy apples and bananas and oranges.

In this version, the word and stands in for the commas, and the reader can be pretty clear about what Taylor bought at the store.

Admittedly, by that logic, and could also stand in for the last comma, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Taylor went to the store to buy apples, bananas and oranges.

This is why there is confusion. In such a simple example as this, omitting the final comma makes sense as there can be little confusion about what Taylor bought. But, in other cases, omitting the final comma can create confusion.  This is, I am guessing, where people like my coworker's comma-angry professor went wrong. In both definitions, the rule does not clarify why the comma is recommended nor why some people just don’t use it.

Fortunately for us, we have Grammar Girl. I adapted the following examples from her book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing to explain why, despite these two books’ rather lame explanations, using a comma before the conjunction in a series makes sense most of the time.

For example, if I were a baker, I might make several different kinds of pies.

Taylor’s specialty pies are apple, strawberry and rhubarb, and peach.

Note that this sentence refers to three different pie flavors:

  • apple pie
  • strawberry and rhubarb pie
  • peach pie

Assume, then, I have my coworker's comma-angry professor, and she made me omit the final comma before the “and”. Observe:

Taylor’s specialty pies are apple, strawberry and rhubarb and peach.

Without the comma, the reader would assume I only have two specialty pies to offer:

  • apple pie
  • strawberry and rhubarb and peach pie

While delicious either way, it’s definitely confusing. In this particular case, I would want to be clear about the number and flavors of pies I’m selling, therefore, I’d use the comma before and.

Here’s one more way to word it:

Taylor’s specialty pies are apple, peach, and strawberry and rhubarb.

In this case, I would definitely leave out the comma before the final and because I still want to convey that I only make three different kinds of pies. Furthermore, as you can see, I have put a comma before the first and to make this very clear.

Consider another example of where an omitted comma can cause a lot of confusion. Grammar Girl uses the example of a court case in which damages are awarded to three people.

One million dollars will be awarded to Taylor, Josh and Dennis.

Now, assuming we follow the logic of the fruit example above, and we assume that the word and is a perfectly good substitute for the final comma, then we can believe that the one million dollars is being split three ways. However, maybe I’m a total bi-atch, and I surmise that, actually, I am getting half a million dollars, while Josh and Dennis are splitting the other half, thus making the split 50/25/25 instead of 33.3/33.3/33.3. Without that final comma, I could very well argue that Josh and Dennis are a single party, while I am the other party, and I could end up a lot richer than either of them.

Thus you can see that while “some people” may omit the final comma, the wise writer will use it 99% of the time because it just makes good sense. This is why most reputable style manuals recommend it and why you are generally safer using it than not.

Use a comma between two independent clauses separated by a conjunction.

This rule is less controversial, but I still see writers of all levels miss this one frequently. As you will remember from the previous section, the common conjunctions are:

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So (FANBOYS)

Clauses are sections of a sentence, and, as intimated by its name, an independent clause is a section of a sentence that could stand independently as a sentence all its own. And, for a sentence to stand on its own, it must contain a subject and a verb, i.e. be a complete thought. The idea here is that when two complete thoughts, or sentences, are connected with a conjunction, they form a compound sentence delineated by a comma. Of course, in order for it to make sense to connect the two sentences in the first place, they ought to be related in content, tone, and idea. This may seem like a bunch of grammatical jargon at this point, but chances are you know this rule intuitively already. Here’s an example to refresh your memory.

Taylor won the law suit against Josh and Dennis.  She is a very wealthy woman.

Of course these two sentences are just fine as they are, but they read like two random facts: Taylor won the suit. Taylor is wealthy. However, we want the reader to know that though true independently, the facts are related. Therefore, we would recraft these sentences into a single sentence using a comma and a conjunction.

Taylor won the law suit against Josh and Dennis, so she is a very wealthy woman.

Note that each sentence has now become an independent clause connected with the comma/conjunction double-team. Each clause has a subject (Taylor/she) and a verb (won/is). But, because Taylor is actually subject of both verbs (she=Taylor), this could be condensed into a single sentence with no comma or conjunction. Observe:

Taylor won the lawsuit against Josh and Dennis so is a very wealthy woman.

Since Taylor is the subject for both verbs (won/is), the second part of the sentence is actually a dependent clause, as it depends on the subject of the first part of the sentence. Therefore, it should not be separated by a comma. The conjunction, however, stays because it indicates the relationship between the two sections of the sentences.

Now, The Chicago Manual of Style states that a comma may be omitted before the conjunction even if there are two subjects and two verbs when the following condition is met: the second subject/verb combo is very short and closely related to the context of the first part of the sentence. For instance:

Josh thought Taylor was a conniving gold digger and Dennis agreed.

If we pull these two clauses apart to make sure they can stand on their own as sentences, we’d see that, yes, they could:

Josh thought Taylor was a conniving gold digger. Dennis agreed.

The second sentence is very short and consists of the bare minimum subject (Dennis) and verb (agreed). While Chicago thinks it’s ok to omit the comma in such a situation, I would argue that consistency is always better. Like all style guides, Chicago is written for a specific audience—in Chicago’s case, it’s newspaper, magazine, and book editors for whom page space is at a premium. To them, it might be important to eliminate the space that a comma takes up in order to fit more content on a page. In my opinion, this is a pretty weak reason to ignore a very simple rule. For the average writer, I’d suggest using the comma/conjunction combo whenever you need to link two complete ideas this way. Most of us are not trying to save such tiny increments of space. In my opinion, clear, consistent writing always wins over nitpicky exceptions that won’t be clear to every reader.

If you are, for some reason, desperate to save space, a semicolon can also do the job of a comma/conjunction combo.

Josh thought Taylor was a conniving gold digger; Dennis agreed.

By using the semicolon, you are showing the relationship between the two ideas by combining them into a single sentence, but avoiding addition of the comma and and. This has a slightly different effect because it backs the two ideas up to each other to show relationship but without showing exactly what that relationship is. It’s also a little more jolting to read, as the comma/and combo smoothes it out. It can work, and it is a style choice on your part. Both ways are correct.

Use a comma between two adjectives preceding a noun.

This particular error is rampant. When editing, I almost always run across adjective pairs that lack a comma to separate them. It irks me. But then, I’m like that. This is a VERY simple rule that no one should get wrong, so let’s learn it once and for all, shall we?

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.), “when a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by a comma.” For example:

Dennis told everyone that Taylor was a devious, greedy thief.

Per Chicago’s rule, this sentence could also be written with and instead of the comma:

Dennis told everyone that Taylor was a devious and greedy thief.

In both cases, the adjectives (devious and greedy) are modifying the noun (thief).

The only exception to this rule that I can find is when the second adjective is basically a part of the noun. For instance “young boy” and “religious association” are taken as single units. In these cases, the adjective is really part of the noun. If this is the case, you can omit the comma. For example:

That is a smart young boy.

The Catholic Church is a large religious association.

These are not very common, and if you have to think hard about whether or not a certain adjective/noun pairing is a unit, then it’s probably not, and you are safer using a comma.

One other scenario to watch out for is adverbs. Adjectives modify nouns while adverbs modify verbs. (Ad-VERB, get it?) Depending on their position in the sentence and the context, words that end in –ly may serve either as adjectives or adverbs. Grammar Girl’s Quick Dirty Tips for Better Writing gives the example of the word daily. This word can be used as an adjective to modify a noun such as the word commute in the following example:

Taylor’s long, daily commute gives her plenty of time to think about writing.

Or it can be used as an adverb for the verb to commute in this example:

Taylor commutes far daily.

Note that in the first sentence, the two adjectives are separated by a comma because they both modify the noun commute. In the second sentence, far is an adjective, but daily is now an adverb that is modifying the verb commutes, so there is no comma used.

Your Mission

While it may seem tempting to throw our hands up and say that since there is possibility for confusion and special circumstances, there’s no reason to follow these rules. That is not the case. In fact, if the rules are followed consistently, then the special circumstances are just that—special and rare. I can’t imagine what happened to my coworker’s professor to make her eschew all serial commas once and for all, but I think what she did was wrong. She did not do her research and, as a result, she has confounded whole rooms full of students. As writers and lovers of language, we should stand up for the rules. Learn them. Use them. Teach them. Of course they shift and flex, but that is the wonderful thing about language. I firmly believe that you must learn the rules before you break them, so learn these three comma rules—NOW!

You assignment this week (and forever) is to look up these rules yourself. To write this article, I used three different books, but there are SO many, and other books may cite other exceptions or examples. Or, they may simply state the rule and call it good. Either way, learn these three comma rules to the point that you feel confident in your knowledge. Practice using them in all of your writing—emails, poems, manuscripts, tweets. Then teach them to another person. Or, if these are something you know well already, tell us all about it. How did you learn them? What did it take to make it stick? Have you ever taught them to someone else? How did that go? Please share your experience in the comments section below. 


Photo by Steve Kass

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life April 19, 2012 - 8:36am

I used to always use the serial comma before the and, but saw so many other writers not doing it that I stopped. In light of this article, and your examples (I wants my full share of the money!), I'll be going back. Thanks for setting me straight.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words April 19, 2012 - 9:53am

I always thought commas were a threat to capitalism.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks April 19, 2012 - 9:56am

A journalism teacher I had refused to acknowledge that he only dropped the comma before and in a list because of an outdated technique. When newspapers were pasted up, they had to cut out each character separately. Dropping that final comma made it easier on the layout team. Still, he said it was a "journalism rule" and we had to follow it.

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash April 19, 2012 - 10:17am

Lynne Truss's book Eats, Shoots & Leaves has a brilliant chapter, "That'll Do, Comma" that explains the origins of some of the comma controversy (as well as punctuating on a grammatical level, commas suggest rhythm and breathing points in words that are meant to be read aloud).  She reiterates the opposing views of New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, and contributor, James Thurber  -

Ross's "clarification complex" tended to run somewhat to the extreme: he seemed to believe that there was no limit to the amount of clarification you could achieve if you just kept adding commas.  Thurber, by self-appointed virtuous contrast, saw commas as so many upturned office chairs unhelpfully hurled down the wide-open corridor of readability.  And so, they endlessly disagreed.  If Ross were to write "red, white, and blue" with the maximum number of commas, Thurber would defiantly state a preference for "red white and blue" with none at all, on the provocative grounds that "all those commas make the flag seem rained on.  They give it a furled look."

They spent the 1930s arguing about it, but Ross wrote the checks so he got the final say.

 

Conor Morris's picture
Conor Morris April 19, 2012 - 10:58am

The problem is, AP style (journalistic style) clearly states to get rid of the "Oxford comma," or last comma in a series.

"Use commas to separate items 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."

I understand if you're using Chicago style or whatever, but this is simply a difference in accepted writing styles, at least in the first case that you talked about.  

Really, not saying anybody is wrong.  Just that they're two different writings styles that are used for different writings.  

 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. April 19, 2012 - 12:00pm

Anyone who doesn't use the last comma in a series is a filthy bastard.  Fuck you, AP!  Chicago forever.

Also, I love this example of not using the serial comma: “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

Kevin Lynn Helmick's picture
Kevin Lynn Helmick from Lake Villa IL is reading Train, Pete Dexter April 19, 2012 - 12:41pm

Personally I agree with Connor in that it's a matter of style. Personally I don't like tracking up the page with unnecessary commas,. I'm speaking in terms of fiction here. I wouldn't use a comma before a conjunction unless the end of the sentences needed a pause indicating emphasis, in which case I'd probably put it after the conjunction. Maybe that's wrong but at least it does a job there.

I do use a comma before the conjunction if the rest of the sentence needs to run on and make a related but different point.

But other than that, I think many of these rules are far  too outdated to worry about in the context of creative writing today.

However you can get the sentence to flow through the readers mind, smoothly, coherently and easily would be the right way, and that's about all the writer needs to worry about. I've never had reader mention the misuse of a comma. Only instructors, teachers and English professors seem to be annoyed by this, and that's not who I write for.

I don't want the reader to keep tripping over my commas when clearly a conjunction has that dual pupose.Why muddy it up with both?

 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. April 19, 2012 - 1:40pm

See.  Filthy bastard.

J/K

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch April 19, 2012 - 2:43pm

I was under the impression that all Europeans (including non-English speakers, meaning, in their own language) never ever put a comma before "and." And Americans do, at the end of a list like the ones mentioned above. I tell my students "if you were in Europe, you would not put it there, but since you're in the US, yes put it there." I grew up without that comma by the way, but now I use it.

Rex Francis's picture
Rex Francis from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia is reading God Emperor Of Dune April 19, 2012 - 4:40pm

I've always preferred the Oxford Comma. I'm an Australian, and our version of English is influenced more heavily by British use, but it always made more sense to have it there than not, even when it was vaguely redundant.

The rule I always held in my head about commas is that they represent a slight, but not complete, pause. Just like in that sentence there. It certainly helps when reading a work aloud.

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing April 19, 2012 - 8:16pm

Two questions.

1. If The Little, Brown Compact Handbook states that a comma must be used between “three or more items of equal importance," and The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) states “when a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by a comma,” then why isn't it called The Little, Brown, Compact Handbook? (I obviously don't feel this falls into the exception category)

2. In the case of the apple, peach, and strawberry and rhubarb pies, isn't it easier just to use semi-colons to separate the pie types? If a comma is essentially taking the place of a conjunction, and a semi-colon can be used to for lists where the items of the list contain punctuation (like commas), by the transitive property of grammar - that I made up right now - why not just write "apple; strawberry and rhubarb; and peach pies." If the ultimate goal is to avoid confusion, then I fail to see how that is not the most elegant solution. 

Bonus aside: I've never heard a "strawberry-rhubarb pie" referred to as a "strawberry and rhubarb pie." I know I'm splitting hairs, but if the goal is simplicity then there is another elegant solution. 

Aaron Martin's picture
Aaron Martin from the Pacific Northwest is reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson January 30, 2013 - 1:09pm

Taylor, special thanks for bringing up the "comma between two adjectives preceding a noun" rule - I adopted the rule into my own writing but always wondered if it was necessary. If you can believe this, the first time I learned of this rule was not in school, but while reading a guilty pleasure novel (that I'll not be mentioning here). I saw the comma between the two adjectives and, having noticed some earlier typos/errors in the guy's novel, thought this was just another mistake! I've seen it happen so often that I was entertaining the idea that it was a "British English" convention, so thanks for the clarification.

Humboles's picture
Humboles January 4, 2015 - 2:13am

In England, we pupils of the 1960s learned to omit the so-called 'Oxford comma', but I long ago rebelled. Where it's redundant, it's a harmless ornament, but there are many cases where a sentence might be ambiguous without that final comma. A paramount function of punctuation is to avoid ambivalence.

Jennifer Leavitt's picture
Jennifer Leavitt February 19, 2015 - 1:06pm

If you follow AP style, your editor will pitch a fit for using that final comma. Different style books handle this very differently.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow February 20, 2015 - 2:37pm

Oh, I know, Jennifer. And if I'm ever forced to follow AP style, I'll follow the style guide. But until I'm forced, I'm keeping it!

1234's picture
1234 April 20, 2015 - 11:48pm

I can't believe you're actually going to use misleading ostensibly authoritative references as if they lay down the hammer on the serial comma issue.  This is so incredibly either ignorant or willfully deceitful.

There are volumes and volumes of discussion on this issue and no consensus.  There is no consesus because there is no right answer.  You can find very good examples where one way causes ambiguities and the other avoids them ("My father, Tom, and I" being a classic one AGAINST the serial comma).  You can then find other examples that go exactly in the opposite direction.  This will NEVER change and aparently neither will the existence of people like yourself who only wish to emphasize one class of examples without showing the equally compelling examples of the other class.  In fact given that there really is a pretty good balance of such examples, one could (and I do) argue that you might as well go with the way that is lighter to read, and then be aware of when it's a problem.

There really is only one solution, and this is THE reason there are "authoritative" sources.  The solution is to be consistent so that when you DO change (and you SHOULD at the right times) the reader will know it was deliberate and will safely be able to assume that your reason for change was meant to take a stand on some specific ambiguity, and thus the reader can trust the interpretation of that stand. However there is no universal standard, and you are not in a position to declare one.

The source, which you incorrectly imply has some global authoirty, is not even meant to have global authority. It is meant to define a consistent standard for use within that publication environment so that deviations from that standard can either be reworded or will be understood by the readers for what they are.  To the extent that the advice might have any more global weight that this, it certainly cannot be taken to have any outside of the U.S.  Yes, ironically, the Oxford comma is most popular in America.

It is extremely discrediting that anyone like yourself claiming to be a grammar authority would make such an arrogantly-bold global declaration about something that is so decidely globally undecided. This is like Mac vs PC wars.  I cannot understand why a supposedly well informed "authority" cannot bring themselves to present a balanced perspective on this issue.  Why does everyone need to be in a camp?

1234's picture
1234 April 21, 2015 - 12:05am

Kevin Lynn Helmick:

"But other than that, I think many of these rules are far  too outdated to worry about in the context of creative writing today.

However you can get the sentence to flow through the readers mind, smoothly, coherently and easily would be the right way,"

 

This is maybe the only clearly WRONG position on this issue. Maybe for "creative" writing this is fine.  In other words, when precision of meaning is not important, then do whatever you like.  Well sure, ok, but in scientific writting this cannot fly.  You MUST use a standard.  Pick one, either one, and you make changes from it deliberately because it DOES impact the meaning, but only does so clearly if it's clearly deliberate.  

This mentality is worse than merely wrong.  It stands at odds with the fibers of educated civilization.  Ok, ok, but it is really, really wrong, and has a hint of willful ignorance that is slightly disturbing.

David Sisson's picture
David Sisson December 7, 2015 - 11:25pm

Thanks for being so knowlegeable and articulate about punctuation! I needed this particular clarification to back up my critiquing of a friend's writing style with respect to commas, or more accurately, lack thereof. By the way, I've seen dozens of sites where someone claims to be a master of grammar, only to offer conradictory, unclear, and downright wrong information. (Don't even get me started on the Brittish bastardization of a once great language; Really? The family were disappointed? No! The family members may have been disappointed, but the family was clearly not! :-) It makes me happy to know that I'm not the only one out there who understands the importance of writing everything such that it can easily be read by anyone of any age. All writing should be treated as poetry! Thanks again! 

Jhena's picture
Jhena January 7, 2017 - 9:21pm

"Taylor went to the store to buy apples, bananas, oranges." Good grief. This would never pass muster anywhere I've ever studied or written for. How awful to consider this merely awkward.

In addition, I worked for a decade for one of the largest corporations in my country, and our style guide for corporate communications expressly stated not to use Oxford commas. I understand that there are some grammar manuals that state to do so, but not all do, and you are certainly not the end-all, be-all expert on the subject. I am definitely not saying either way is right, but shame on you for looking down your nose at everyone who doesn't agree with you.

kiki95's picture
kiki95 March 22, 2018 - 11:48am

On the off-chance that someone is still monitoring this post, may I request some input on this sentence I'm constructing? 

The pool located in this yard is enclosed with its own separate fence.

Initially I had a comma after 'own' but during editing it just struck me as awkward and excessive. The problem is, I don't know why I think it should NOT be there. It certainly looks like 'own' is one in a series of adjectives and would, therefore, deserve to be separated by a comma. Thoughts?

PS, I considered (and discarded) the idea of putting commas after 'pool' and after 'yard'. I think they certainly could go there but, even to me, they just got in the way of easy readability and actually changed the meaning of the sentence ever so slightly. 

Thanks.