Friday, December 11, 2009

The Comma Controversy

Based on your comments to my last post, issues over the use of the comma seem to be in abundance, so I thought I'd spend one more post discussing it. One of you brought up using the comma in lists such as this: I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit. Is that last comma necessary? I learned a long time ago that it wasn't, but lately, I've heard differently. Someone else mentioned the use of the comma before a person's name in an instance like this: I spoke to my friend, Susan, and she said it wasn't true. Should the comma before 'Susan' be there? I always thought so, but maybe not. What about when you use a name as a direct address as in this sentence: I wouldn't do that if I were you, Susan. Should that comma be there? I say yes, but what do I know? And, lastly, there is the whole issue of conjunctions that separate two complete sentences like this: My son plays baseball, and my daughter dances. Is the comma before 'and' needed? I put it there, but not everyone does. I'd love to hear your opinions on these issues, and I hope you have a great weekend!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'll put it this way...I'll wear those shoes around for a month if I don't have to sort through all the comma chaos. ;)

Me = not a fan of commas (that is, knowing where they belong more so than not using at all).

~ Wendy

Matthew Delman said...

First example: Yes, the comma should be there. Unless you're writing in AP style, which would not use the final comma.

Second example: It depends on what importance you're ascribing to the name "Susan." If the sentence doesn't work without it, then don't include the preceding comma. If it does work without the name, then you should include it.

Third example: Yes, you definitely need the comma. Otherwise the sentence doesn't flow properly.

Fourth example: Because your son and daughter don't do their activities at the same time or in the same place, you need to have the comma before the word "and" in that instance. Especially with phrasing like this, the order of actions is very important to consider.

These are all just one copyeditor's opinions though. Blame it on the day job. :)

J.B. Chicoine said...

I'm going to vote for continuity throughout the manuscript.

Cassandra Frear said...

There is some room these days for choices with the comma. Traditionally, it's correct to use it before "and" at the end of a series, but now writers have the option of omitting that last comma. We were taught to always separate two independent clauses with a conjunction-plus-a-comma or a semicolon. But now, two short sentences can go without the comma.

The fact is, language is changing all the time. So are the rules.

The best way to decide, says my news editor husband, is to think about it from the reader's perspective. Is the text easy to read? Would a comma make things clearer? Or would it just add clutter?

Matthew Delman said...

Something I forgot to add -- if, upon reading the text aloud, you think it sounds weird without a comma then by all means include it.

Anonymous said...

"I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit."

I say yes to the comma after the word bananas here because I would pause there when talking.

I spoke to my friend, Susan, and she said it wasn't true.

I would not put a comma before Susan here because when talking I would say "friend Susan" without a pause

I wouldn't do that if I were you, Susan.

I could go either way with this. I would not put in the comma, but not against it either.

My son plays baseball, and my daughter dances.

I would not put the comma there for similar reasons above.

Anyhow, these are just my opinions. You know I'm nowhere near an expert. Either way, it can get very confusing. I say we eliminate the comma from the English language (except for those sentences above).

Jill said...

The series comma (x, y, and z) is good for clarity - especially if there are pairs in the list (My favourite meals are lasagne, pot roast, bacon and eggs, and spaghetti).

As for names, use the comma if the name is mentioned to differentiate or identify:

Jane's son, Mike, plays the tuba. (Jane has 3 sons).

Jane's son Mike plays the tuba. (Jane has 1 son).

My favourite grammar & punctuation site isThe Online Writing Lab at Purdue University:

Cheers, Jill

Robyn Campbell said...

ARGH! I do know this, Susan, you don't have to put a comma before a natural pause. Teachers that taught that, FOR SHAME ON YOU. :) My crit partner happens to be a high school Lit teacher. She told me that. And commas come after dependent clauses, of course. Because a clause needs punctuation of some sort. This other stuff? I'll have to ask Beth. :)

Valerie Geary said...

I say pick up a copy of Strunk and White's "The Element of Style" and keep it by your desk. It's my writing bible.

Unknown said...

Hi! I'm Robyn's crit partner and a self-proclaimed Grammar Queen :)

I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit.

Is that last comma necessary?

YES--according to MLA standard style. Unless the last two things are connected, you need that last comma.

Someone else mentioned the use of the comma before a person's name in an instance like this:

I spoke to my friend, Susan, and she said it wasn't true.

Should the comma before 'Susan' be there?

It depends, but probably not. You're not using it as an apositive. If you're just saying that she's a friend, then "friend" is an adjective describing Susan. If you're making a distinction--you've got several friends, but you're really pointing out Susan, then you need commas. (Like, "My friend, you know--Susan, she did this...")

What about when you use a name as a direct address as in this sentence:

I wouldn't do that if I were you, Susan.

Should that comma be there?
Yep, you need on there. It's being used as an apositive.

And, lastly, there is the whole issue of conjunctions that separate two complete sentences like this:

My son plays baseball, and my daughter dances.

Is the comma before 'and' needed? I put it there, but not everyone does.

YES--you need it. The other people are wrong. (Although, stylistically, if it's two short independent clauses, you can get away with it, just like when you have a short prepositional phrase without a comma)

I've actually done a whole series on grammar on my blog (told you I'm a grammar nerd!) The first one is here (there's five total)

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Hey, Susan!

Um... in a series, like the first one, the comma needs to be there if you're using MLA format. AP doesn't want it though.

I recently learned about the renaming one too. I'd never heard that one before.

The third one is a direct address, so yes.

The fourth one, no. A comma before "and" only in a series of three or more.

But then again, I'm no expert... :0)

kah said...

I had a college English teacher who told us go through our writing and remove half of the commas we used. "You'll still probably have too many, but it will be an improvement."
So I tend to under use commas, but I'm getting better at it thanks to my fabulous beta readers. :)
Click to read Karen’s Blog

Catherine Denton said...

I'm with Valerie on this one. I couldn't tell you the rules but I could find it in Shrunk and White's book.

sanjeet said...

Yes, you definitely need the comma. Otherwise the sentence doesn't flow properly.

Work from home India

Anita Saxena said...

I'm glad we have Senor Delman aka Comma Master Extraordinaire!
Commas are often mysteries to me. I just throw some in here or there. Kind of like when you season a meal with salt.

Just Another Sarah said...

As another copy editor, I agree with Matthew Delman, up above. I would fluctuate on number four, depending on my own stylistic wish, though. :)

Stephanie McGee said...

I use it in every instance but the last one. That's just how I've always done it and how I've almost always been taught. Different style guides will tell you different things. You just have to go with your gut and the directions your given.

Karen M. Peterson said...

I would say the comma is necessary on most of your examples.

I hate when people use commas wrong almost as much as I hate when they leave them out altogether.

My friends call me a Grammar Queen. Or Nazi when they think I can't hear them. ;-)

Lesley said...

I generally try to use punctuation to guide the reader's pace. So, if I wanted them to read slowly, and carefully, and think about each phrase, I might use lots of commas. Or even periods. Like. This. haha. As a rule I keep commas and other marks to a minimum. It's amazing how much punctuation matters, really!

Jennifer Shirk said...

In the lists, I believe it's grammatically correct to have it, but I know Harlequin's "style" is to omit it. So now I've gotten use to taking it out. They've given me a bad habit! LOL!

Lori said...

I do like commas. I didn't realize until recently what a big debate the comma makes in English, and how different style guides offer different rules. I am doing some editing work right now and I have to follow the Associated Press style and I am getting used to it fine, although earlier I used the Chicago style exclusively. Why is there a need for different styles? In Romanian there are such clear and untouchable rules, that nobody even thinks to doubt them.

KA said...

I would put a comma there in all four instances. My husband isn't even a writer, and we've had arguments about the first example.

Deb said...

Can I borrow the shoes when Wendy is finished with them? :)

Matthew Delman said...

Lori --

The simplest answer is that each style guide is targeted to a specific audience. Off the top of my head, I can think of five different style guides that deal with different styles of writing. The American Medical Association has a medical style guide, Microsoft put out a computer style guide, there's Chicago for publishing, AP for newspapers, and then Strunk&White (which is used across the board).

Now, further complicating the issue is the fact that sometimes publications put out style guides specific to their organization. The NY Times has its own style guide, and so does The Wall Street Journal.

The end result is grammatical chaos because of English's status as an "open" language. This is different from French, which has an entire organization devoted to keeping it pure.

Romanian has the benefit of being a direct descendant of Latin and (correct me if I'm wrong) seems to share most of the same grammar rules. I like Latin. It's organized, tidy, and you never have quibbles like you do with English.

Matthew Delman said...

Oh and Susan? Sorry for hijacking your blog.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I agree with Matt's first post, except I'll be honest and say I never, ever follow his advice on the 4th example. I know it's the rule, but even my English teacher partner says no one follows it.

Have a great weekend!

Julie Dao said...

I'm picky about including the last comma in a list of three: "I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit." I tend to overuse commas so I try to read my work aloud - if I pause too many times, there are usually too many commas.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I've always followed AP style since I worked for a paper and in public relations. It sometimes trips me up, but old habits are hard to break!

Roni Loren said...

The one that I struggle with is the two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. I was always taught to put a comma if both clauses could stand on their own, but my beta readers often delete them in my crits.

Corey Schwartz said...

I say "yes" to all, though I have had big fights with people over the first one.

Lillian Robinson said...

I seem to have a lot in common with you concerning the use of commas. Maybe we overdo it... I don't know. What I do know is that lots of people under-use them!

A comma can make a big change in the flow of a sentence, making it easier to follow. I really hate those missing commas. They can cause you to have to reread a sentence.

I'm interested to find out how all this comma controversy works out!

Ellie Kings said...

Great questions, Susan. There you go I just gave you a comma! :) I read through some of the comments and they sound wise enough for me. Have a great weekend, sweetie!

Paul Greci said...

I go back and forth on all these comma issues. I like Matthews explanations. In my writing I'm going for a combination of consistency throughout the manuscript plus what sounds right when i read it outloud.

Angie Muresan said...

Guilty, guilty, guilty!!! Someone just give me a comma book already and let me bury my embarrassed face in it.

Stacey J. Warner said...

You don't want to hear my opinion...LOL!

I'm horrible at grammar. I use commas to slow people down, LOL!

much love

Patti said...

I took a grammar course in the summer and am still trying to apply what I learned, but I do remember her saying that the third comma was optional. That really helps, doesn't it.

B.J. Anderson said...

Wow, lots of great answers! And I'll leave it to the professionals, because I just don't know for certain.

Amber Lynae said...

Have you read a Jane Austen novel recently. All those commas make my head spin. It is the same thing with my short stories and manuscripts. One person says comma here; the next says no. I can admit that punctuation is not one of my strengths.

I know that when someone is addressed directly, a comma is inserted.

Great post, Susan.

Michelle Gregory said...

i surfed in from Tabitha's blog. nice to know that other people fret(?) over punctuation and grammar as much as i do. you'll notice, though, that i'm not using caps, but that's because i'm such a grammar freak and i'm trying to relax a little. (although, i did edit my comment here about 5 times!)

Tara McClendon said...

Matthew hit the head on the copy-editing nail. Of course, even among companies (and publishers) the rules can change.

Gomathy S said...

"I spoke to my friend, Susan, and she said it wasn't true."
I always think that the comma here represents that the sentence would still be complete even without the words in between the comma like,
"I spoke to my friend and she said it wasn't true."

* said...

I am a comma addict. Much like a quote addict and chocolate addict, which I am also. Rules and/or use of commas might be more fluid than I thought.

Glynis Peters said...

Catching up and have just read your posts on the dreaded comma. I hate it, I just add them when I think they are needed. I am sure I will be told fast enough that they are not required.
Interesting post, thanks.

Ronald L. Smith said...

I agree with the poster who mentioned Strunk & White. It's been my handy companion for years. That means I am not a fan of the serial comma, which you used in your example: I bought apples, bananas, and grapefruit.

Tamika: said...

Sorry to chime in so late- Friday was a mad house at work and this weekend was a blur.

Commas... my least favorite grammar error. I'm really all over the place on this one. Thanks Susan for clearing up all the notions. Sifting through the comments it seems that are varying opinions, as I suspected.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to comma's Autumn is totally clueless. I seriously need grammar for dummies on this. I have some writing books at home that deal with grammar so I will have to study them to see what is right and what is not. Either way, it is all a bit confusing.

Janet, said...

I tend to agree with you about the commas. When I was in school, I took shorthand. They had rules for commas and they stuck in my head. In my critique group they usually red mark out a lot of my commas.