Comma Controversy

comma

Sofia Brown

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)

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Norris, Mary. “Holy Writ” The New Yorker (Feb. 23, 2015)
  3. Williams, Joseph M. and Joseph Bizup. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2014. 

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5 Comments

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  1. I think that your essay really makes its main point when you say that “it is best to keep in mind that punctuation is meant to emphasize and make things clear.” When it boils down, that’s what our goal as writers and editors is: to make writing clear and understandable. Punctuation is just one tool we can use to do so.
    I hope also that you’re right in saying that “comma usage and punctuation is a lot like muscle memory—the more you use it and stay consistent…the more naturally it will come.” I’ve found this to be true when talking with others in the fields of English and communication, but less so in students with little experience in or love for writing. Commas often come up in conversation when I work with students at the Center for Writing. Some students express complete confusion over how to use them; as you express in your essay, there is often the sentiment of “silliness” or questions of why any of it matters. Others fall into the categories you describe of those who use commas to mark a “pause” or those who use them to clarify the meaning of a sentence. I try to encourage students to continue using commas in the way that they explain it to me, provided that this method appears to be working in their paper so far. In cases of complete comma confusion, I think the best advice I can give them now is to use commas and punctuation in general to keep their writing clear. Hopefully this becomes second nature for them as well!

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  2. First of all, your visual is perfection. What I enjoyed about this piece was how you acknowledge the heavy controversy on whether or not to use the Oxford comma, and put it in perspective by reminding the reader that the purpose of the comma is to bring clarity. Comma placement should really be as simple as what sounds pleasing to the ear, while making the most sense with the information, but instead it seems like we’ve lost sight of this to an extent and have shifted our focus onto technical rules. Bringing up the journalists perspective was great because it really showed how the same set of rules aren’t going to work in every situation, again affirming the idea that we should be using punctuation for clarity, not because it’s required.Adding that you were unsure whether to say “serial” or “Oxford” comma also worked well to prove your point about rules in the literary field. It’s interesting to think about how we go to literature for clarity, but behind the scenes it’s actually quite messy and uncertain. I liked that you showed the differing opinions in this area as well, with one source saying that we should observe all grammatical rules because they’re there for a reason, and another saying to make grammatical choices based off of what sounds good to you. Even though there are rules, there are some that suggest you’re fine using them loosely, an interesting situation I don’t think you’d see in many other fields.

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  3. I appreciate that you discuss the differences between Communication & Journalism writing and English writing. I’m also a COJO/English major and switching between styles during different classes makes things difficult! The idea that different disciplines require different styles is a really important discussion to have.
    I personally love the much-debated Oxford comma, but your explanation that it might not be necessary in journalism made me think about the comma in a new way and (*gasp*) I might actually agree that there is a time and a place for it.
    I think this discussion of editing within a discipline goes along with a lot of other topics we’ve talked about in class. Whether it’s punctuation, clarity and voice, or word choice, a literary magazine is not going to have the same requirements as a news story, a scientific research paper, or a business report. We tend to dispute a lot about what grammar and punctuation is “right,” and there is definitely validity in that discussion, but you bring light to the fact that we would all be pretty frustrated if we had to read for an hour to get to the point of a journalistic story or if a novel expounded for pages without using an Oxford comma. Throughout this class we’ve been able to come to this conclusion: as long as we maintain our instinctual English integrity, there is a time and a place for all kinds of writing tools.

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  4. Hey Sofia,
    I really love your essay. You raise a lot of questions and ill feelings that I harbor towards the obsession over commas. They’re such small and minuscule objects and it makes me feel like spending so much time learning them and defining the rules is a waste. However, as you pointed out they can hold an immense weight and change the meaning of a phrase. Therefore, when attempting to write with clarity it’s essential to take everything into account. I love the Norris quote you picked out about how calling the serial comma the Oxford comma gives it “snob appeal.” I’ll admit that when I first heard about this mischievous Oxford comma that I had no idea what it meant. I just assumed from the name that it was something critical and important. I agree with Norris that the word Oxford makes it sound snobby, but it also gives it a sense of regality that suits its complicated layers. I like how you explained the necessity to “use your instinct” when placing commas. I completely agree that sometimes you need to just trust yourself and go with what you think is right. I find that if I’m especially torn on a particular comma that reading the sentence aloud usually makes it more clear to me. As you put it, if the sentence doesn’t sound right with the comma then it probably isn’t. That’s a good, clear way to think of the situation amid all of its complexities. At the end of the day we just need to read the sentence and make sure our readers will read it the same way.

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  5. The illustration/joke at the beginning of your essay is amazing! I could see it drawing any reader in whether or not that reader is interested in writing. It is ridiculous how often the issue of commas can stump a writer or an editor in so many instances. This by itself is a good reason for me to want a Universal Style guide too! Life would be so much easier in many ways. The only problem is that I don’t think it would ever be possible to have close to enough people in the world to agree on only one style! But, oh well, that’s just how things go sometimes and on the plus side, having multiple style guides and options helps us so that we don’t get stuck following one that doesn’t work.
    It blows my mind how much the little things can get people so riled up and upset. Your approach to this matter is helpful because it is so balanced. I have found that in most situations the more balanced a person is the smoother things go. It makes a big difference to get the results you’re looking for when you can go about it without hitting extremes. This isn’t just for commas either. I think it matters in most of people’s lives.

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