Grammar Rules: A Comma Conundrum

1 Feb

The Oxford Comma cartoon is posted with the permission of Eric Edelman. Copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved. More original artwork and blogging can be found at: http://blog.retrocollage.com. For permission to reproduce or re-post this artwork, please contact the artist at: RetroMan@RetroCollage.com

As we grow up, we learn many rules about grammar and punctuation. We learn about all sorts of different types of commas, like those in a list, the Oxford comma, and those breaking up clauses in a sentence. Many times we had to think hard about where to place our commas and check every rule to make sure our English teacher didn’t mark up our papers. When entering college, however, all those rules change.

Perhaps “change” is the wrong word. If we look closely at the basic rules taught in high school textbooks and college level grammar books, they are largely the same. The difference between college and high school grammar is college wants you to use your own judgment. College teaches us that grammar is a tool to be used to aid the reader in understanding our words with ease and clarity.

If, one were, to write a, sentence with, commas, between, all sorts, of words, we would read the sentence quite choppily and all the commas would skew our understanding of the meaning. Commas are a sign to the reader to take a break when reading. It is a sign to show a natural pause where one can take a breath or to show that the two pieces of the sentence may be related, but not as closely were there to be no comma.

The Oxford comma is an especially tricky comma. It is the final comma in a series that may or may not come right before the “and” in the list. It is many times considered a style choice, but leaving it out can sometimes cause confusion.

College classes teach us to use commas as a personal statement on how we want our writer’s voice to be heard. Do you want your readers to hear your writer’s voice as a set of subtle succinct sentences? Do you want your readers to hear your writing voice as a long string of flowing words without pause and filled with passion? This all can be greatly affected by not only the words you use, but also the punctuation choices you make.

Grammar’s main purpose, however, is to help the reader understand the meaning the words convey. Read this sentence: I went to the store with the party animals, Julie and Dayna. Now read this sentence: I went to the store with the party animals, Julie, and Dayna. The first sentence may lead the reader to think that Julie and Dayna are, in fact, the aforementioned party animals, whereas the second sentence leads us to believe they are separate from the party animals, changing our impression of the girls right off the bat. All of that meaning was changed with the simple addition or subtraction of the Oxford comma.

Choose commas carefully. They may be considered largely stylistic for placement, but they can prevent confusion, help your readers know where to naturally pause to speed up reading, and organize your sentences into manageable chunks.

-Brian

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One Response to “Grammar Rules: A Comma Conundrum”

  1. Judith Briles April 11, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    I actually have been confused with the Oxford comma before and somehow been ignoring its true essence. It’s good to have this kind of post to remind us even on simple grammar rules.

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