Switching back and forth from the Journalism department to the English department frequently causes me confusion when it comes to style and punctuation rules. Every style guide says something different, and I often wonder: why can’t there be a universal guide that every person and publication adheres to? But I am able to find a way to separate the different situations and figure out which style rules I should obey. More specifically, it perplexes me on whether or not I should use the serial comma, let alone deicide when commas are appropriate to use in general.
The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, comes before the “and” in a succession of three or more things in a sentence. In Mary Norris’ essay “Holy Writ,” she explores her own encounters with the Oxford comma and offers a fresh perspective on overall comma protocol. Norris states, “Even something as ostensibly simple as the serial comma can arouse strong feelings.” So what is the comma controversy all about? And does the use of the Oxford comma really matter?
To get rolling and perhaps make things a bit complicated, why does this comma that comes before the “and” in a series of three or more things have more than one name? Should I hereby refer to it as the “serial” or the “Oxford” comma? Norris states, “To call it the Oxford comma gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal.” Her explanation makes me feel as though I should take the “classy” route and stick with “Oxford” rather than “serial.”
So as an editor, there are questions and options around what to do about the Oxford comma: eliminate it, keep it, or possibly add it in. It can be preferred because it prevents ambiguity, but it can also be seen as redundant. Isn’t the “and” sufficient? Can’t time and space be preserved without it? The question is really up for debate, and individuals will always have their own preference. Personally, my journalistic habits shift me towards removing it completely, but that is a given since newspapers do not acknowledge the Oxford comma (because news is supposed to read fast). This makes sense if the reader treats commas as a pause. Norris says, “Choose one and be consistent and try not to make a moral issue out of it […] Maybe it’s better to judge each series on its merits, applying the serial comma where it’s needed and suppressing it where it’s not,” that’s the bottom line. As long as the writer is consistent with either using the Oxford comma or not, they are being correct.
When it boils down to it, it is not only the use of the Oxford comma, but also the overall use of commas that brings up conversation. Norris divides the comma controversy into two groups: one group plays it by ear, using the comma to mark a pause—and the other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure. She describes that “it can be tense and kind of silly.” After all, it is “silly” how much time can be spent on comma decision-making. While Oxford commas are not essential to the meaning of a sentence, the use of commas in other situations are. Overall, the comma’s main job is to act as a mark to show thoughtful subordination of information. Editors have to make decisions about commas, and those decisions are subjective; it all comes back to keeping the intent of what the writer means.
In appendix I of Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup lay out a nice rule set on comma use. The question of whether or not an editor should observe these rules word for word is completely subjective, as mentioned above. So when it comes to comma usage, Williams and Bizup suggest the following: 1. “Always separate an introductory element from the subject of a sentence with a comma if a reader might misunderstand the structure of the sentence.” 2. “Never put a comma right after a subordinating conjunction if the next element of the clause is its subject.” 3. “Avoid pitting a comma after the coordinating conjunctions and, but, yet, for, so, or, and nor if the element is the subject.” And 4. “Put a comma after an introductory word or phrase if it comments on the whole of the following sentence or connects one sentence to another.” (217-218)
Following the rules is one way to go about comma usage, but following your instinct probably works just as well. Williams and Bizup state, “There are strong rules of punctuation. Observe them.” (223) While it is obvious and vital to keep punctuation rules in mind, Norris offers up the idea that with commas, “it’s up to you when you read it.” Additional tricks she recommends are that if you can substitute “and” for a comma, it belongs there and if adjectives do not belong to the same order: do not use a superfluous comma.
What do I mean when I say, “use your instinct”? No matter how many tricks and tips there are when it comes to comma usage, if it sounds wrong, it’s probably wrong—if it sounds right, it’s probably right. While writing and while editing, using judgment on when to add in, eliminate, or preserve a comma, it is best to keep in mind that punctuation is meant to emphasize and make things clear. It is not meant to be repeatedly overanalyzed. I think that comma usage and punctuation is a lot like muscle memory—the more you use it and stay consistent with certain tactics, the more naturally it will come. That’s what “using your instinct” is all about. The Oxford comma dilemma should not have to be a stressful controversy.
While the moral problem of the Oxford comma may not be going anywhere, it is important to stay consistent, go with your gut, and not over analyze the rules of punctuation. For anyone who finds themselves associated with multiple departments that adhere to different style guides (let’s say flip-flopping from journalism to English,) always follow the proper guide and once again, be sure to stay consistent. When all else fails, remember the wise words in The Copy Editor’s Handbook where Amy Einsohn states, ““Punctuation serves to give structure and coherence to complex expressions.” (72)
- Einsohn, Amy. “Punctuation” The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys. Third ed. Berkeley: U of California, 2011. 72. Print.
- Norris, Mary. “Holy Writ” The New Yorker (Feb. 23, 2015)
- Williams, Joseph M. and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014.