Category Archives: comma use

To comma, or not to comma? That is the question.

Which way would you write this phrase:  “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?

In Maine, a court case involving around $10 million in back overtime pay came down to just this:  Is the comma before the word “and” needed in a series?

If you are thinking, “You gotta be kidding,” no I’m not.  The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, settled this month in a US Appeals Court in Maine, focused on whether some drivers deserved overtime.  That decision—yes, they do deserve overtime– came down to the lack of a comma in one of Maine’s overtime laws.

Here is the Maine law stating which workers don’t deserve overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The problem is the lack of a comma after the word shipment.  Is the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” to be taken as a whole?  Or are the shipment and distribution two separate categories, neither of which deserves overtime?  If the law had a comma after the word shipment, distribution would not require overtime pay.

The court ruled that the lack of a comma after “shipment” made the law ambiguous even though it follows the written guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual.  The court sided with the drivers distributing milk, saying they were entitled to overtime.

The AP Stylebook, which most reporters consult for grammar issues, says the final comma before “and” is not needed in most cases any more than is a comma needed for a two item series (bread and butter; not bread, and butter).  However, the style manuals used in colleges and universities do require the comma, and public schools where I live, in Georgia, teach that the comma is required.

There is a name for the comma before the word “and.”  It is called the Oxford comma.  I haven’t heard of a word for the lack of a comma, but for this discussion we might call it the AP comma rule.

Which practice do you use?  The Oxford comma?  The AP comma rule?  Usually I use the AP comma rule unless doing so leads to confusion.  Sometimes the AP comma rule can lead to what seems like an appositive rather than a continuation of a series, such as in “I want to thank my two political science teachers, President Obama and Hillary Clinton.”  If omitting the comma could lead to confusion, I include the comma.

The tendency in US writing is to leave out commas when the sentence is clear without punctuation.  For example, years ago I was taught that introductory adverbs like “now,” “later” and “then” need to be followed by a comma.  Yet the comma in “Then, I went home” seems silly.  I was also taught that compound sentences should use a comma after the first clause, but in the short sentence, “I fell and I hurt my leg,” a comma after “fell” seems ridiculous.

The first rule in writing anything is “Be clear.”  If leaving out a comma leads to ambiguity, use a comma. Otherwise, unless you are following a particular style book, the choice is yours.

By the way, when Shakespeare wrote “To be, or not to be,” in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, he used the Oxford comma.

When to use parentheses

Parentheses are marks of punctuation used to separate a word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of a sentence.  Here are some suggestions on how to use them.

parenthesesIf the parentheses contain words which are part of a sentence but not a complete sentence themselves, don’t use a period or a comma within the  parentheses.  The exception is when the words within the parentheses are a question or an exclamation.  Then use a question mark or an exclamation point as appropriate.

  • My mother (but not my father) has blue eyes.
  • Both of my mother’s parents had blue eyes (no surprise there!).

If the words in parentheses are a complete sentence, use punctuation at the end of the sentence, within the parentheses. 

  • My father and his mother had brown eyes. (But they each had at least one parent with blue eyes.)
  • My father’s father had blue eyes. (So why didn’t my father have one brown eye and one blue eye?)

Parentheses within parentheses can be grammatically correct, but they can be confusing to the reader.  It’s a good idea to rewrite those ideas using one or no parentheses.

  • I have brown eyes (the brown from my father (who probably had a recessive blue gene, like me)).
  • I have brown eyes.  The brown gene came from my father, who probably had a recessive blue gene, as I do.

When a name can be reduced to its initials, say the complete name first, and immediately after the name put the initials in parentheses.  Later, when you use the initials in place of the name, you need to use an article in front of the initials.

  • Both my mother’s parents were born in the United States (US), but neither of my father’s parents were born in the US.

When writing a research paper, you will be directed by your teacher to to use a particular style book.  That style book will have  information on how to use parentheses for citations and specific Latin abbreviations.  If you are not told to use a particular style book, you can use the Associated Press (A.P.) style book, or you can use a dictionary.  Name that book in the references part of your paper.

In general, it is better not to use parentheses if you can separate information with commas, or if you can rewrite idea to obviate the need for parentheses.  Too many parentheses can muddy the meaning, and the first rule in good writing is to be clear.

When should I use a comma?

“When should I use a comma?” is the question about writing I am asked  more than any other.

student thinking about what to write

Below are the rules.  But experts disagree on many of them, and good writers ignore some of the rules.  If you are a student, ask your teacher what she expects.  Language is always changing, and that includes rules for writing language.  In general, as American English has become more informal, fewer commas are used today than in the past.

  • The rule: In a series of three (red, white, and blue), use two commas.  The practice:  Many people skip the comma before the word “and.”  They think, if I don’t need a comma between “white and blue,” why do I need one for “red, white and blue”?
  • The rule: In a compound sentence, a comma goes after the first clause.  (I like snow, so I like winter sports.)  In practice:  If the clauses are short, most good writers skip the comma if the meaning is clear.  If the clauses are long, they use the comma.
  • The rule: Use a comma after a stand-alone adverb which starts the sentence.  (First, let me eat.  Then, we can talk.)  The practice:  Sometimes the comma is used, but many times it is not if the meaning is clear.
  • The rule: When a dependent clause starts a sentence, end that clause with a comma before writing the independent clause.  (The previous sentence is an example of that.)  The practice:  Good writers follow this rule.  What if the first clause is the independent clause?  No comma is needed.  Students make lots of mistakes with this rule, especially when using the word “because.”
  • The rule: When you start a sentence with “because,” you cannot put a period at the end of that clause.  Instead, you must end that clause with a comma and continue the sentence with an independent clause.  The practice:  Teachers tell students they can’t start sentences with “because” to avoid students’ writing fragments.   Of course, you can start a sentence with almost any word, including “because,” if you use correct sentence structure and punctuation.
  • The rule: Appositives require commas before and after.  (My teacher, Mrs. Smith, gives lots of homework.)  If an appositive ends the sentence, then the “after” comma becomes a period.  The practice:  Commas are often not used with appositives.
  • The rule: The identity of the person speaking a direct quote needs to be set off with a comma.  (Mom said, “Eat your dinner.”  “Eat your dinner,” Mom said.)  If the spoken words end with a question mark or exclamation point, then the comma is not used.  (“Look!” said Mom.  “Where?” I asked.)  The practice:  Most good writers use this rule.  If the quote is indirect, commas might or might not be needed.  (Eat your dinner, my mother said.  I said I would.)
  • The rule: Between cities, states and countries commas are needed, but not between states and zip codes.  The practice:  This rule is used.
  • The rule: Between days of the week, dates, and years, commas are needed.  (My vacation stopped on Saturday, August 13, 2016, when I returned home.)  Notice that if the date does not end the sentence, a comma is required after the date or year.   The practice:  This rule is followed by good writers.
  • The rule:  If just a month and year are used, no comma is required.  (He graduated in May 2016.)  The practice:  This rule is generally used, but some grammar books require a comma in the last sentence.  (He graduated in May, 2016).
  • The rule: If “yes” or “no” begin a sentence, those words are followed by a comma.  (Yes, I can hear you.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: When speaking directly to someone, a comma is used before or after the person’s name.  (Lou, come here.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: To offset a negative phrase, commas are used before and after.  (I saw Annushka, not Sei, at the movies.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: For house numbers, no comma is needed.  But for other numbers of a thousand or more, commas are needed to separate every three numerals beginning from the right or decimal point.  The practice:  This rule is followed.

If you are using a grammar book as a reference, check the date.  Older versions require more commas.  If you are using a source from outside the US (English booklets prepared by a foreign company, for example), more commas will be required.  If you are a high school or college student, ask your teacher which style book he or she will use to grade your work and follow that style book’s rules.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.