Commas, commas, commas. What’s the big deal?
Hi, my name is Kim and I am obsessed with grammar. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get down to business: Commas! Commas are great and whether you know the formal rules that go with them or not, everyone (well, almost everyone) uses them. Most people only use them when professors force them to write papers or in other formal writing. Then there are the weirdos – like myself – who use them even in informal writing. Yes, I proudly use commas in my texts, social media posts, and in notes to myself.
WAIT! What was that?? Re-read the last sentence.
À la Crocodile Hunter: “Here we see an Oxford comma in its natural environment, nestled comfortably in between items in a list.” If you know what an Oxford (or serial) comma is, we should be best friends. If not, let me introduce you to the greatest punctuation mark ever.
An Oxford comma is basically just your regular, nothing special comma that you use to set off items in a list (i.e. ‘texts, social media posts, and in notes to myself’). The thing that makes it special is that you must, must, must use it before the ‘and’ in said list. If you leave out the comma before the ‘and’, it is not an Oxford comma.
If you don’t use the Oxford comma, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Its use is simply dictated by writing preference. I, however, grew up being browbeaten into using it and I guess you could say Stockholm Syndrome took over and now I cannot write lists without it.
“But, Kim,” you may ask, “who cares about a silly old comma before the ‘and’ in a list?” The answer? Probably no one. Well, I do, but I realize that I am probably in a shrinking minority when it comes to that. Oxford commas, in the grand scheme that is grammar in writing, are not of critical importance (though I will never admit that to anyone). Commas in writing in general, however, are beyond critical to writing and being clearly understood. Don’t believe me? Check out the picture below.
“But, Kim,” you may still ask, “what does comma placement really matter? As long as my message is understood, who cares about some silly little squiggle?” The answer is everyone! The only one surefire, foolproof way to make sure your written message is understood is to use that silly little squiggle. Readers can never be entirely sure of when you, the writer, pause or seek to break up clauses or items in a list and so you must, must, must use that comma to clear things up for your reader. After all, whatever you write is not just for you, it is for your reader (unless you are writing something that you, and only you, will be reading and even still I would recommend throwing that comma in there, but that’s just me).
Clarity for the reader is of the utmost importance! To further illustrate this point, just look up Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. YES, there are books dedicated entirely to punctuation. Isn’t it wonderful? I think so anyway. Back to the point though: In this book, an adorable panda (who doesn’t love pandas?) shoots up a restaurant because of a misplaced comma. I’ll explain:
“A panda eats, shoots and leaves.”
“A panda eats shoots and leaves.”
There isn’t much to distinguish the two sentences, is there? Just one silly – incredibly significant – little squiggle. A panda, upon reading that it ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ assumes that he should eat in a quaint, little café then pull out his panda gun and shoot! The comma placement in the first sentence describes a list that said little panda is simply following: he eats, then shoots, then leaves. We won’t discuss the fact that an Oxford comma was not used here. I am not saying that adding a comma where it does not belong is going to make pandas start toting guns around cafes (but I’m not saying it won’t either… commas are important). In leaving out the comma in the second sentence, it makes it apparent to reader and panda alike that pandas do not normally pack heat when eating out, but rather that they stick to their normal diet of shoots and leaves.
So are commas really that important? Yes, yes, yes. Just ask the people at the café the panda in the first sentence visited, assuming they have calmed down enough to speak to you. Commas can make or break clarity in a sentence for any reader and, as previously stated, clarity is of the utmost importance to readers (and pandas). So start throwing some commas in your sentences! Don’t do it willy-nilly as that might lead to further confusion, but start by looking up some basic comma rules or dust off those grammar lessons that you learned earlier in school and use them! It might take some practice to get right – English grammar is notorious for being tricky – but with a little time and patience, you’ll get it and your readers (and any literate pandas) will thank you.