Commas Matter: Here's Why...

Commas are one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s arsenal. They provide the literary-minded with a method of controlling the pacing and tempo of their prose. Though despite its ubiquitous presence, the comma is one of the most divisive forms of punctuation in the English language, mostly due to its frequent misuse.

The comma is the second most commonly used form of punctuation, second only to the period, yet many of us still haven’t mastered its use. Proper comma usage can mean the difference between writing a masterfully dynamic sentence and a sentence which could easily be misunderstood.

The Basic Function of the Comma

The most basic and common use of the comma is to separate words and groups of words when listing a series of three or more items.

While this might seem simple enough, many writers have trouble deciding where to place, and where not to place commas. For example, note the following sentence about my breakfast.

“For breakfast today I ate fruit, steak and eggs, and a tall glass of orange juice.”

Notice the placement of the comma after the word eggs. This comma clarifies that “steak and eggs” is a single dish, rather than two separate parts of my meal.

Or take a different sentence also about eating:

“I love eating cars and cute bumper stickers.”

Without commas, the sentence reveals a strange diet of cars and the stickers we attach to them. Alternatively, properly placed commas clarify the true meaning of the sentence:

“I love eating, cars, and cute bumper stickers.”

Better, right?

So, What’s the Deal with Oxford Commas?

Oxford commas, sometimes referred to as serial commas, have become a matter of serious contention among the writing community. Put simply, Oxford commas are commas that come directly before the conjunction (most often ‘and’ or ‘or’) of a sentence containing a list of three or more items. Let’s use my previous sentence as an example. Removing the Oxford comma results in the following sentence:

“I love eating, cars and cute bumper stickers.”

Note that the comma after the word ‘cars’ is now missing. By removing the Oxford comma from the sentence, I have accidently added unnecessary ambiguity. Without the comma, one can easily assume that while I do indeed love eating, I mostly eat cars and cute bumper stickers. The addition of the Oxford comma helps segment the sentence into three distinct word groups.

Whether or not you decide to use the Oxford comma is up to you. It’s purely a stylistic choice. But consistency is key. Switching back and forth between using the Oxford comma and not using the Oxford comma can make your writing harder for the reader to understand.

The Bottom Line

Mastering the use of the comma is a critical part of becoming a great writer. Learning the basic rules of comma usage will make you a better writer, storyteller and reader. By properly using commas, you help guide your readers through your sentences, resulting in a smooth, clear, and cohesive reading experience.