The comma argument

My family spent my mother’s birthday dinner in a heated argument about a comma.

I’m aghast that anyone would take a stand against me on this issue.

I am a linguist and an editor.

I may be so confused by science I believe there are little people inside my TV box, but it would be impossible to know more about punctuation than I.

The mark in question is the one often erroneously placed before the conjuction in a simple list: He picked his guitar, friends, and nose.

Today after school one of our closest family friends was attacked by my children. “What’s your opinion on the comma?”

“I don’t care.” Poor kid. He was wondering why he is our friend.

“You must.” I don’t know why they valued his support so strongly. This is a child who pronounces the ‘L’ in ‘talk.’

My daughter, by the way, is for the comma, as is my mother. My son and I are on the side of reason.

The children began to present their positions — simultaneously. My son called me in to define the rule. I used my voice of authority.

“You put a comma before the conjunction in a list only if the last item has a conjunction in it: Myles listens to Hannah Montana, The Jonas Brothers, and Donny and Marie. This rule is for clarity. It’s a favor to the reader.”

Myles gave me an ugly look.

My daughter insisted, contrarywise, that it’s using the comma indiscriminately that adds clarity. She began to expound, “If I ate macaroni and cheese first, then potatoes,” (big pause) “and steak….”

“Wait a minute!” I interrupted. “No vegetables? You won’t have to worry about commas. You’ll end up with a semi-colon.”

The children sent me back out of the room.

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14 Responses to “The comma argument”

  1. Julia Says:

    Ah! The Oxford Comma! (yes, it has a name) I, for one, was always told that the comma was optional. I used it anyways. In a way to me it is like an extra form of organization. It makes the sentence even. I am totally FOR the Oxford Comma!!

    And as a help to poor Myles, he doesn’t listen to Hannah Montana.

  2. T. Says:

    Oh Miss Julia, it is most definitely NOT optional. It’s conditional.
    And I refuse it call it the Oxford comma. I prefer the more accurate name, the Erroneous comma.

  3. Jeremy A. Says:

    I think I’m leaning towards your daughter side on this case.
    You do make a good case (I’m curious to find out what my dad thinks on this one).

    Although I don’t think I would have macaroni & cheese, potatoes, and steak.
    As an alternative I think I would go for a steak (or any other entrée), vegetables, and some dessert.

  4. Will Says:

    We should do away with commas all together using Lisp-like syntax instead
    (food we should have for tea ((macaroni and cheese) potatoes steak))

    Or double-spaces

    Some choices for dinner are macaroni and cheese potatoes and steak.

    Or just use multiple semicolons

    Some choices for tea are macaroni;; cheese; with peas;; carrots;;; jacket potatoes;; roast chicken;;;; pasta;; cheese.

  5. T. Says:

    Um, do I have readers out there who are not mental? Gunky, where are you?

  6. gunky Says:

    i have to teach this all the time, and i have various text books on the subject, so here i am.

    in england they use it, here we supposedly don’t have to, except for the reason you mentioned.

    in class, i tell the kids they should have a reason when they use any punctuation mark, and the reason should not be, “because there is a PAUSE there.”

    my advice to you is to keep your cool, and be happy that your kids can even discuss it.

  7. Asher Says:

    As for the serial comma, I quote from Lynne Truss in “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” courtesy of the Wikipedia article (quite sensible, I say) on the “Serial Comma.” “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken.” I hope someday to be fortunate enough to drink together with Toni, but a referee or police officer should be present.



  8. Jeremy A. Says:

    Well said Asher. So why can’t we all settle down, shake hands, and agree that we will accept each other’s differences. In fact why don’t we do on Nov. 4 at 168 Bellevue Ave. in Redlands, Calif. from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. where we can also discuss about being green. Who’s in?

  9. T. Says:

    Jeremy my love, as long as long we’re commenting on a grammatical point, let me rudely point out the difference between ‘each other’ and ‘one another.’
    ‘Each other’ is when there are only two parties with something mutual.
    ‘One another’ is three or more.
    Let’s accept one another’s differences.
    And thanks for the plug. See you there. I may bake goodies.

  10. Jeremy A. Says:

    I’m sorry. I was on a rush to type out my comment before I had clean the dishes. Thank you for correcting me for I am known to make mistakes (some know me for making BIG mistakes).

    I have a problem with your previous comment. When you said “let me rudely point out…”, you shouldn’t have put in ‘rudely’. In this case you were ‘kind enough to reply to my previous message to help me with my wording problem and then giving me the definations of two phrases that seem similar, but actually have different meaning.’

    Once again, thank you.

  11. rhonda Says:

    I’m totally, wholeheartedly with you on this one, Tonester.

  12. roberto Says:

    Although there is much to be said for grammatical rules, adherence to them at all times is something I will not put up with.

  13. Stats « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] my 313 posts, The Comma Argument is in first place. This is not even close to being my best […]

  14. Stats « Stories O' Mine Says:

    […] my 313 posts, The Comma Argument is in first place. This is not even close to being my best […]

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