By Allison VanNest, Grammarly.com
Consider the following sentences:
Let’s eat, grandpa!
Let’s eat grandpa!
In the first, grandpa is being called to dinner. In the second, he is dinner.
In 2010, Tails magazine did a cover story on chef Rachael Ray, announcing that she found inspiration in “cooking her family and her dog.” Without commas, Ray is a cannibal.
The rules of comma use are often confusing and, to make matter worse, may change over time or in different settings. Though it is the humblest of punctuation marks, often overlooked and frequently abused, the comma has the power to completely change the meaning of a sentence. Some writers treat commas like candy sprinkles, shaking them liberally onto their sentences. Others will use a comma only when absolutely necessary, rationing their punctuation marks as if they might run out in some distant, horrible future.
The Punctuation Wars
Because English, unlike most modern languages, has no governing academy, we’re left to make up the rules as we go along. Various style guides exist—The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and the MLA Handbook are some of the most popular—and different publications hew to different rules. Many cobble together their own “house style,” including The New Yorker and The New York Times, which fall on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Mary Norris, a writer and proofreader at The New Yorker, writes that “when you restrict the use of the serial comma solely to those instances where a genuine ambiguity exists, then every time you come to a series you have to stop and think. By adopting the serial comma, we have more energy to devote to sprinkling in commas elsewhere.”Meanwhile, in The New York Times, English professor Ben Yagoda finds the liberal use of commas to be old-fashioned, if not outright wrong. His students, he argues, don’t read enough edited prose, consuming Tweets and Facebook status updates instead. He highlights their tendency to add a comma after an introductory conjunction, concluding that, “People punctuate that way because, if they spoke these sentences, they’d pause after the conjunction.” He also cites the “extremely fanciful and undependable Microsoft Word grammar and style checker” as a culprit; for a more accurate and adaptable grammar checker, try Grammarly.
The Right to Keep and Bear Commas
Sometimes, a confusing comma results in a momentary pause to make sense of the sentence. And sometimes it decides whether people are allowed to carry guns. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the placement of the commas in the 2nd Amendment prevented the District of Columbia from a blanket ban on handguns. The wording of this amendment, with its perplexing use of commas, has opened its meaning up to different interpretations with real, legal consequences: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A Matter of Personal Taste
In the Rachael Ray example described above, would you use one or two commas as correction? The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is a popular topic for debate amongst the sort of people who get worked up over grammar. “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family and her dog” isn’t particularly confusing with the serial comma, which would be placed after family. However, sometimes the missing comma does cause at least momentary confusion.
Mignon Fogarty (AKA Grammar Girl) cites the book dedication “For my parents, Ayn Rand and God” as a case when the serial comma is necessary. Without it, it’s implied that the authors parents are Ayn Rand and God. She encourages the use of the serial comma, writing “I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis.”What should you do? The best choice is to pick a style and stick with it. Consistency and clarity matter more than following contradictory, confusing rules of English grammar.
About the Author – A self-proclaimed word nerd, Allison VanNest works with Grammarly to help perfect written English. Connect with Allie, the Grammarly team, and more than 875,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.
What do you do about commas, serial or otherwise? Tell us about it in comments please.