From the Editor’s Eye
The 10 Most Common Errors Made by Writers
(And How to Fix Them)
The second of a ten-part series.
#9. Commagain? Oxford Comma, Comma Splice & Dialogue Punchuating Bag
The comma, the plow horse of punctuation, has several uses. This piece addresses three of the them: in a series (the serial or Oxford comma), as a comma splice, and when punctuating dialogue.
As a copy editor for the San Diego Reader, I witnessed a shouting match between a fellow copy editor and the managing editor. An outside observer might have concluded that the publication’s very reputation rested on the outcome of that ultimately deleterious debate—over a comma.
The lowly copy editor argued that the sentence did not require a comma at a specific juncture; the managing editor insisted that it did. When the managing editor stomped out of the room, I thought that settled the matter and the copy editor had prevailed.
The managing editor returned a few minutes later with The Chicago Manual of Style cradled in her hands as if it were the Holy Bible (for some folks in this profession, it is). She shifted the open book to her right hand, and, with a finger of her left hand (I’ll leave it to you to imagine which finger), she stabbed at the relevant citation on the page and said, “See? It needs a comma!” I rolled my eyes and went back to work.
The next day, I leafed through the news magazine until I reached the page at the center of the previous day’s editorial jousting match. Yep, there was the comma. (The managing editor generally wins these battles.) Meanwhile, at the top of the page, in 72-point bold font, a typo leapt from the page. In their zeal to justify the use (or not) of a peonic comma, they had overlooked the fact that someone had misspelled a word in the headline, resulting in “Chicego.”
I love the irony.
This blog is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
That incident symbolizes the seemingly never-ending debate over the use of the serial comma. (It’s also known as the Oxford comma because the Oxford University Press style guide calls for it.) One school of self-righteous thought insists that the S/O comma be used religiously, without fail; the opposing indignantaries insist it’s not necessary.
So, who’s right? Flip a coin.
I often switch sides: When writing/editing a book manuscript, I use the serial comma; when writing/editing news copy, I don’t. That’s because the style guides do not agree. In the U.S., The Chicago Manual of Style mandates using the serial comma; the Associated Press forbids it. (Legend has it that the AP dropped the serial comma to save space.)
For all of you head-scratchers out there wondering what heck is a serial or Oxford comma—and why should I care?—here’s the deal: It is the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list or series of items in a sentence; you should care because your critics may be OCD.
For example: The flag is red, white, and blue. The serial comma is the one preceding “and.”
Here’s the same sentence without the serial comma: The flag is red, white and blue.
See the difference? Neither do I (other than the missing comma).
In fact, James Thurber famously insisted that there be no comma in that sentence: The flag is red white and blue.
“Not so fast!” say the serial stylists. Here’s the trump card they smugly toss on the table to take the trick: This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
They insist that without the serial comma this sentence means the author is saying that her parents are Ayn Rand and God, however unlikely (and laughable) that may be. However, with the comma (This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God), the Oxfordians insist it can only mean the author has dedicated the book to Ayn Rand and God, as well as her parents.
Too which I say, “BS.” It still could be interpreted either way. (Witness the debate over the relevance of the commas in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.)
Clarity, not confusion.
The best solution is to write a sentence that does not create confusion: This book is dedicated to God, Ayn Rand, and my parents.
Moral: This unending debate about a comma sends me (but not lawyers—see Resources below) into a coma.
The reality is that there is no error, per se. It’s a matter of preference. The problem I see most often within a manuscript is inconsistency—sometimes the author uses the serial comma, other times the author does not. You should make a conscious decision to use it, or not, and stick with that policy throughout the entire manuscript. And, when your editor asks you which you prefer, you can now answer with authority.
Knot You Up: Comma Splice
Avoid comma splices by using a conjunction, semicolon, or period to separate independent clauses (complete sentences):
- incorrect: Sara named her cow Fonzie, she was a sucker for those old “Happy Days” reruns.
The comma following Fonzie is known as a comma splice.
- correct, with conjunction: Sara named her cow Fonzie, because she was a sucker for those old “Happy Days” reruns.
- correct, with semicolon: Sara named her cow Fonzie; she was a sucker for those old “Happy Days” reruns.
- correct, with period: Sara named her cow Fonzie. She was a sucker for those old “Happy Days” reruns.
Use a period for greater impact; use a semicolon when the two subjects are closely related and you want to emphasize that relationship.
Dialogue Punchuating Bag
Based on my experience, punctuating dialogue or quoted speech seems to confuse most writers. This is due, in part, to how they attribute and characterize the quoted words.
The style guidelines (i.e., the rules):
- Use a comma when the attribution is a form of speech; use a period when you describe a physical response or reaction.
- Do not attribute dialogue with a physical response, such as a shrug, sigh, laugh, moan, groan, etc. These are not speech. Generally use “said.” Yes, it becomes repetitious, but it becomes invisible to the reader, who merely wants to know who is speaking. Other acceptable terms (but use them sparingly) include replied, responded, answered, asked. Please, do not use “barked”—not only is it not speech, it’s a cliché. (More on this, and the use of adverbs in this context, in the next series.)
- incorrect: “The amount varies somewhat,” Casey shrugged.
- incorrect: Casey shrugged, “The amount varies somewhat.”
- correct: “The amount varies somewhat,” Casey said and shrugged.
- correct: Casey shrugged and said, “The amount varies somewhat.”
- correct: Casey shrugged. “The amount varies somewhat.”
- incorrect: Manny sighed, “I suppose I cannot keep her here forever.”
- correct: Manny sighed and said, “I suppose I cannot keep her here forever.”
- correct: Manny sighed. “I suppose I cannot keep her here forever.”
Good (and fun) references:
- What Is the Oxford Comma and Why Do People Care So Much About It?
- Grammar’s Great Divide: The Oxford Comma — TED-Ed
- The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars
- Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation by Richard Lederer (Verbivore)
- Comma Splice
- Grammar Humor
- The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian)
- Resources for Writers, Editors, and Indie Publishers
Still to come:
#8. Word Contortion: Homophonic Trip-ups
#7. Three Dots and Out: Give Your Ellipsis Elbow Room
#6. A Tense Moment: Word Context, Past & Present
#5. Dash It All! Part A: Hyphen and En Dash
#4. Dash It All! Part B: Em Dash
#3. Pronounflagration: Pronoun Profusion, Confusion, Contusion
#2. Apostrophic Calamity: Apostrophe vs. Dumb Quotes
#1. Verbal Abuse: Lie Down with Lay & Related Verb Warps
Extra: My Language Pet Peeves