Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The comma – part 1

with 9 comments

Bamboo, by Xu Wei, Ming Dynasty.
Image via Wikipedia

Some people spray commas around and hope one or two will land in the right place. Others use them instead of full stops (don’t start me on that — not yet, anyway) or don’t use them at all.

The comma multitasks (so it must be female) and is absolutely invaluable to ensure clarity in your writing.

So, to kick off, and for a bit of food-themed fun, we’ll look at how the comma can help you say exactly what you mean (or exactly what you don’t mean if you get it wrong).

Who’s eaten what?

Have you eaten, mum?

Have you eaten mum?

Do you want to go to the restaurant?

Here’s a famous example inspired by the title of a book about punctuation by Lynne Truss:

I love going to that restaurant. A panda visits it regularly. He eats bamboo shoots and leaves.

I never go to that restaurant. A panda visits it regularly. He eats bamboo, shoots and leaves.

Just think about that second example for a minute…

More user-friendly information about punctuation

Commas after introductory words or phrases

Using commas to separate items in a list

Using commas to separate extra information in a sentence

Fused sentences, or using a comma when a full stop should be used


9 Responses

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  1. Under the influence of you and other British grammarians and writers, I am coming around to the view that Americans use too many commas (I mean in proper, careful writing). But I’d add that Brits use too few. A bunch of commas usually means a too-long, too-complicated sentence — often one with meandering clauses.

    In contrast to what I just said, I’m also coming back, later in life, to the wisdom of the Oxford/Harvard/community-night-school comma (that is, using a comma for the next-to-last item in a series). It’s one easy extra stroke, it never seems to confuse the sentence, and it often helps make a complicated sentence clearer.

    Michael Farrell

    28/03/2010 at 6:59 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — that’s interesting. I don’t like the Oxford comma unless it’s absolutely necessary. In case anyone’s wondering, this is what a sentence with an Oxford comma looks like:

      She is a writer, actor, and producer.

      Without the Oxford comma, that would read:

      She is a writer, actor and producer. (No comma after ‘actor’.)

      The Oxford comma is also called the ‘serial comma’ and is named after the house style of Oxford University Press.


      28/03/2010 at 7:23 pm

      • You’re a journalist! They don’t like the Oxford comma (a dislike started by the Cambridge Univ. Press, no doubt).

        Michael Farrell

        28/03/2010 at 8:34 pm

        • Wiki has a great entry on the “serial comma,” with its history, benefits, problems, and supporters or detractors, as well as some very clever examples of how it can affect meaning and comprehension. Some of the examples undercut my suggestion above that adding the comma never confuses the sentence.


          Just to tease the Wiki article, one funny example is this book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

          Michael Farrell

          29/03/2010 at 12:33 am

          • Thanks for that interesting link, Michael. I think passions can run high about the Oxford/serial comma!


            29/03/2010 at 7:05 am

  2. “The comma multitasks (so it must be female) and is absolutely invaluable to ensure clarity in your writing.”

    “Female” or “invaluable to ensure clarity” – choose one 😉


    25/02/2011 at 11:31 pm

  3. For some reason,I feel like you are talking to me! I really glad I found this site! That opening sentence is just hilarious 😉


    16/12/2011 at 2:43 pm

    • Hi, veehcirra!

      Thank you, and you’re very welcome here.


      16/12/2011 at 2:48 pm

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