Communication Skills

JS Tip 167: From the Writing Workshops: Reviewing the Lowly Comma

Our friend Ingrid Lee at Wells Fargo asked us to review commas: “The comma seems to be my go-to punctuation, and I think I tend to overuse it.”

Glad to. As we say in The Reference Book, “No other punctuation mark is as misunderstood as the lowly comma.”

We’ll do this in a series. Each week, for the next couple of weeks, we’re review a different aspect of commas.

First Principle: Place a comma after each element and before the connecting word in a series of three or more elements.

For example:

     Nguyen, Jones, and Goldberg will attend the conference.

     Send copies to Sales, Consulting, and Operations.

Notice the commas after “Jones” and “Consulting” and before the “and.” This comma will get you into a lot of arguments. Everyone has an opinion: It’s not necessary; it’s optional; it’s necessary.

We say it’s necessary to avoid confusion:

The home included four bedrooms, a two-car garage, a kitchen with a laundry, and a lake

     not

The home included four bedrooms, a two-car garage, a kitchen with a laundry and a lake.

Whoops. Where’s the lake? In the kitchen?

The comma even has a name: Kevin. No, no, no, no, no. That was a joke. Start over.

The comma even has a name: In the US, it’s called “The Harvard Comma.”

In the UK, it’s called “The Oxford Comma.” Seriously.

That’s because both the Harvard University Press and the University of Oxford Press suggest you use it.

The comma before the connecting word will never hurt you; it may help you. It may keep you from looking silly.