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Comma Down! An Introduction.

Believe it or not, punctuation is a hot-button issue. Not only is there controversy but there are factions that spawn some rip-roaring arguments about things like correctness and necessity and what punctuation marks to use when. Even the experts disagree on things—a lot.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

If we’re lucky, we have a teacher or an employer telling us what rules to follow. Or we write in a field where there is an established style sheet guiding our hand—like the Modern Language Association (MLA) for academia, the Associated Press (AP) for journalism and business, the American Psychological Association (APA) for science or the Chicago Manual of Style for most everyone else.

If we’re unlucky, we’re winging it most of the time, feeling lost and alone. Or worse, we’ve just stopped writing unless it’s absolutely necessary.

It’s a jungle out there.

But there is hope. For those of you who don’t know where to start, start here.

Think about it this way. Punctuation is a system that helps to clarify our written words by separating them, grouping them, emphasizing them and showing relationships between them. It sends signals to readers that the words themselves may not. Stop now. Pause here. Consider this.

We learn the basics of punctuation not as a form of torture, but as a shared system of communication—a language within a language. It’s necessary and important, but it shouldn’t get in our way. It exists to silently serve. Clarity is the watchword—not clutter.

All it really takes are a few simple rules consistently applied.

That’s the goal.

Let’s go.

Answers to Exercise: Commas in a Series / The Oxford Comma

  • Commas lift, separate and clarify.
  • When you have a series of single words, phrases or clauses in a sentence, commas need to get busy.
  • In the examples above, take note of the commas that follow the words “brownies,” “dishes,” “puppy” and “shower.”
  • Think it through, take a stand, be consistent and defend your view with all you’ve got.