writing craft | craft | writing for adults
September 19, 2017
Comma Long With Me and Celebrate Punctuation Day
by Rita Reali
It’s like they created a day just for folks like me, people who are (admittedly or not) obsessed with punctuation… proper punctuation and not-so-proper punctuation.
As a professional proofreader and editor, Punctuation Day is especially dear to my heart. Few things (besides misspellings and homonym abuse) render me as blindingly irate as improper punctuation. These offenses could be in novels, magazine articles or blog posts—even graphics on the evening news. Where they occur doesn’t matter. That they occur at all… that matters.
Some punctuation is simple. We learned early on that a declarative sentence takes a period. “John walked the dog.” The query gets a squiggly little fishhook thingie. “Who wrecked my car?” Emphatic statements warrant a little baseball-bat-and-ball combo. “I despise broccoli!” No doubt about the writer’s sentiments here.
But as we get into complex and compound sentences, we hang a left into the weeds. When you introduce clauses, forms of address or clusters of coordinate adjectives, commas begin to pop up like dandelions in April. And unless you wish to befuddle readers, there’s no escaping them.
That’s not to say every adjective string requires commas. For instance, “Debbie’s favorite toy was a little red train.” No comma. The two adjectives are cumulative, members of two different descriptor categories (size and color).
Then there’s this: “Last night’s meeting devolved into an ugly, sarcastic debacle.” Why does “ugly, sarcastic debacle” warrant a comma when “little red train” does not? Excellent question.
“Ugly” and “sarcastic” belong to the same descriptor category (observations/opinions) in what’s known as the Royal Order of Adjectives. Switching the adjectives’ order won’t alter the meaning of the sentence. You could even swap the comma for “and” without changing the sentence’s meaning. You can find a full discussion of the Royal Order of Adjectives, including why we place adjectives in a specific order, here.
Occasionally, commas get omitted, to hilarious (or horrifying) effect. No doubt, you’ve encountered these potentially cannibalistic examples: “It’s time to eat, children!” vs. “It’s time to eat children.” and “Let’s cook, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s cook Grandma!” For other examples, Google “punctuation fails.” (I would’ve included links, but they all eventually got rather naughty.)
Now consider this doctored magazine cover about a celebrity chef’s apparent penchant for alarming culinary preferences. Two commas were deleted; but many argue that one of those commas (the one preceding “and”) is optional.
The comma before “and” in a list is what’s known as an “Oxford comma,” so named for its use by printers, readers and editors at Oxford University Press. That said, there are three camps regarding the Oxford comma: those who strongly favor it, those who strenuously oppose it and those who don’t care either way.
While I eschew the Oxford comma, I have been known to use it—but only when omission muddies either meaning or intent. For example: “I had bacon, eggs and asparagus, and juice for breakfast.” The Oxford comma separates three distinct breakfast components: bacon, juice, and an eggs-and-asparagus entrée; otherwise, it could be misconstrued as two components: bacon and a hideous amalgamation of eggs, asparagus and juice. Blech!
Still, I’ve never understood the need to insert a comma before “and” in situations like this: “I went to the store for apples, peaches and tomatoes.” If you don’t need apples, you’d say, “I went to the store for peaches and tomatoes.” No comma. So why would you—simply by virtue of adding one item to your shopping list—suddenly feel the need to insert two commas?
I recently posed that question to an Oxford-comma devotee, who was unable to provide any answer, let alone a satisfactory one. Therefore, I unapologetically stand by my general opposition to said comma.
According to some reference sites, there are a dozen or more uses for commas. Should you need to avail yourself of them, you’ll want to check out this explanation of how, why and when to properly do so.
Another often-abused punctuation mark is the apostrophe. Frequently, they get used in an effort to make the user seem educated; sadly, that fails miserably. If you remember these four rules, they’ll take you far in your quest for appropriate apostrophic usage:
1) Never use an apostrophe to make a word plural—even if the “word” in question is a decade… or a single letter.
Wrong: When I got all A’s and B’s on my report card in the 1970’s, my folk’s gave me five buck’s.
Right: When I got all As and Bs on my report card in the 1970s, my folks gave me five bucks.
2) To pluralize a proper name, add “s”—unless the name already ends with “s”; in that case, you’d add “es.” This holds even if ordinary spelling rules would dictate changing the “y” to “i” and adding “es” (e.g., Neelys, Moriartys, Haggertys).
Wrong: I bought cars from the Smith’s and the Jone’s.
Right: I bought cars from the Smiths and the Joneses.
3) When making a plural noun ending in “s” possessive, the apostrophe follows the “s.”
Wrong: When we visited my grandmother and grandfather, we stayed at my grandparent’s house.
Right: When we visited my grandmother and grandfather, we stayed at my grandparents’ house.
4) When making a plural noun not ending in “s” possessive, the apostrophe precedes the “s.”
Wrong: The childrens’ section is near the mens’ department.
Right: The children’s section is near the men’s department.
That’s all for today. We’ll save semicolons, colons, ellipses and quotation marks for another time.
Now quit lollygagging! You’ve got sentences to create and appropriately punctuate.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015.
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