Commas Used to Separate Items in a Series.
When I taught school, no punctuation mark gave students more trouble than the comma. I saw the same tendency in my first critique group, but I also learned one reason why the little squiggle mark posses such a problem—no one follows the same rules.
Well, “no one” is an exaggeration, but the fact is, there is a variety of style books, and they don’t always agree. For starters, fiction generally uses the Chicago Manual of Style, but journalists follow the AP Stylebook, and educators adhere to the MLA Style Manual. In those three alone, there is significant disagreement.
While I edit both fiction and non-fiction, I’ll more often than not use the Chicago Manual of Style since it seems the least specialized (there are guidelines for scholarly papers and scientific notation for example). It also seems like the most flexible, at least when it comes to the comma, and flexibility is good. Most of the time.
Writers need to remember that punctuation should aid the reader. Hence, the shortcut guide to using commas is the following: use a comma whenever there is a natural pause in the sentence.
Chicago says it this way:
- The comma, aside from its technical uses in mathematical, bibliographical, and other contexts, indicates the smallest break in sentence structure. It denotes a slight pause. Effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view.
I think it’s the “good judgment” part that gives so many of us a hard time. What seems obvious to the author of a piece may be obscure to the reader.
One help is to read our work aloud. The commas ought to match where we pause. If they don’t, then we need to put in some work and learn where those commas should go.
Because of this lengthy introduction, I’ll give one of the more well-known comma uses today. Commas separate items in a series. Not just nouns, mind you, but multiple verbs, adjectives, phrases, and even clauses (groups of words with a subject and verb). Note, Chicago strongly recommends including a comma before the conjunction prior to the final item. Hence, the following: She ran her errands, stopped for lunch, and met her sister at the mall.
Consequently, if there are four items in the series, three commas are required, if seven items, six commas. The exception (there’s always an exception, have you noticed? 😉 ) is in a sentence with conjunctions joining each item. This addendum explains why we don’t use commas to separate father and mother, for example. Two items, one comma, so the rule says. But the items here are joined by a conjunction, so no comma needed.
More on commas next time.