Bryan McKenzie, a columnist for my local paper, The Daily Progress, just wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece confessing his inability to use commas. “The truth is, I’ve never figured out when to use that little squiggle that looks like a fallen quote mark…. Everything I write has at least one comma out of place. At one point, I just started sprink,ling the ,dang things through,out the ,sentence and letting the, editor sort it all out.”
Aha, just what every copyeditor always suspected. Writers have trouble with commas (and other punctuation) because they think of them in terms of rules to please teachers, stuff you can forget about as soon as school’s out.
I don’t punctuate for my tenth-grade English teacher or even for editors. I punctuate for my readers because I want them to understand my sentences.
Here’s the problem. Your readers have never seen your sentences before. To read them, much less understand them, they have to break them up into units of meaning. Punctuation leads them through the units. I think of sentences as little journeys, with punctuation as road signs to guide you through. Road signs have two functions: they tell you what to do, and what’s next.
Why did I put a comma in that last sentence between “what to do” and “what’s next?” No grammar rule demands that comma. I put it there to show you, my reader, the units
So I offer a contrarian primer on commas. Let’s start with an easy one, punctuating a series. The Associate Press Stylebook says, “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series…. Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction…. Use a comma before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases.” Confused? Of course, you are, just as you were in school.
This AP version stems from American newspapers’ aversion to punctuation; nobody ever accused the Stylebook of being reader-friendly.
Here’s how to make it simple. Always put a comma between items in a series, including one before the conjunction “and” or “or.” Here’s the pattern: , , , and. Your readers will interpret the commas as separators; then the road sign “, and” tells them that the next item ends the series.
If you don’t use the final comma, you end up with a mess like this: “Their restaurant serves bacon, toast, ham and eggs and fish and chips.” Or this: “Rain crushed the cages, floods drowned deer and monkeys and alligators swam away.”
Despite what I’ve said above, follow the punctuation style of any organization you write for, just to stay on the right side of your friends, their copyeditors.