Bloody Well Write

March 3, 2009

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon

Man. If ever a piece of punctuation brought out the über-moxie in people (usually wordsmiths of some sort, but frankly, all sorts of folks fit in this ire-inspiring category), the comma is it. It’s complicated. It follows several rules and then breaks them with a wink and a smile. It’s the top dog in the you’re-crazy-if-you-think-you-can-get-away-with-putting-that-THERE contest.

All sorts of stylebooks and writing guides have their own (slightly different) version of the comma rules. Since journalists tend to follow the AP Stylebook, and since most “ordinary” folks are familiar with journalistic writing (via newspapers and magazines), here’s the skinny on how to use the comma according to AP regulations.

Generally, commas correspond to the pauses we use in our speech to separate ideas and to help avoid ambiguity. Place a comma:

• Before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) that joins two independent clauses, unless the clauses are short or have no internal punctuation: John would have gone to the store, but he couldn’t find his pants. John would have gone to the store if he had his pants, for he was completely out of strawberry milk, but his car keys were in his pocket, and his boxers were a little too shabby to wear in public.

• Around a nonrestrictive phrase — a phrase that can be deleted w/o changing the meaning of the sentence: The power of any vampire, whether practiced or inexperienced in blood-sucking, depends upon an invitation into the victim’s home.

• To separate members of a coordinate series of words, phrases or clauses if all the elements are not joined by coordinating conjunctions*: To make a proper mud pie, you need water, mud, a bowl and a stick.

*Notice that there is NOT a comma directly before the “and.” This is in accordance with AP Stylebook regulations. If you ask me, though, I think the AP folks are out of their grammatical minds. MLA’s version (comma before the and in a series) is the right and obviously morally correct way to do things, in my not-so-humble and loudly typed opinion; always using the comma before the and clears up every ambiguous instance. But AP rules the proverbial roost, so I enforce the lack of the comma in my work. I’ve even stopped cursing the AP gods under my breath every time I see the situation in copy. Apparently, time is the ultimate healer.

• Before the concluding conjunction in a series if an element in that series includes a conjunction: Sue ordered a greyhound, a whiskey sour, a wheat beer, and a gin and tonic that night. (Some would argue that the second and, joining gin and tonic, should be changed to an ampersand (&). AP, and thus I, argues against it; the ampersand should only be used if it’s officially in the name of something, such as a company (e.g., Johnson & Johnson).

My parting gift to you: One way to tell whether or not you need a comma between adjectives is to consider the weight of each adjective. Try to add an and between the adjectives. If it works and still makes sense, the comma is necessary: a small, red dog = a small and red dog. If it doesn’t, the comma doesn’t belong: He went to a large public school (no comma after large).

And one last thing: Please don’t give me too much grief about the title of this entry. It is quite obvious, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I grew up, in part, in the ’80s, so please don’t taunt me too much about my silly, nostalgic pun. My inner child will thank you for it.

Happy trails!

SAK

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