Written by David Hatz, Teacher, Coach, Statistician (ret.)
Of all the punctuation marks, none is more misused or abused than the comma.
Misplaced or omitted it can confuse the reader (at best), or change the author’s intent (at
worst). Such gaffes can cause embarrassment to writers young and old. They are often
humorous (unintentionally), and also great sources of conversation.
I considered devoting this article to an in-depth discussion of basic comma rules,
providing you with examples, and explaining the whys, wherefores and exceptions of each. But
most of you would likely find the topic boring and tedious, and quickly search for more
interesting reading matter. As a matter of fact, so would I. And composing such an essay would
Fortunately, it is not necessary. If you struggle with comma usage, simply employ your
favorite search engine and type “basic comma rules.” If you use Google, for instance, you will
get 76,800,000 hits in 0.45 seconds. Read several of them and find one that is relatively short,
clearly explains each rule, and provides examples of correct and incorrect usage. Print it, if
desired, or bookmark it for reference when you are tasked with a writing assignment.
Instead, I will regale you with some examples of how a missing, misplaced or additional
comma can drastically alter the meaning of a sentence. And, as with last week’s blog, hopefully
provide you with a few laughs while at the same time gaining a better appreciation for the
period with a tail.
Consider this simple command: “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” or “Let’s eat Grandpa!” While
both are correct, there is a significant difference in the meaning – the first announces a meal is
ready; the second suggests an act of cannibalism.
Here is another correctly written sentence, but …
“Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”
I didn’t know anyone could travel through time. But apparently they can, and most of
them are concerned about their luggage.
Now if the writer had added a comma:
“Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage,” we have a sentence that
achieves the writer’s intended effect.
The following item appeared in a restaurant’s menu:
“Goats cheese salad ingredients: lettuce, tomato, goats, cheese”
Hmmm. Seems the inclusion of extra comma makes this entrée a lot less vegetarian-
Or how about this road sign (which needed a colon, comma or dash):
“Slow children crossing”
Without punctuation, instead of warning motorists to slow down because of children
crossing the road it alerts the driver to the presence of snail-paced children in the area.
And finally, here is a headline that actually appeared in a pet magazine called Tails:
Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog
Well, in the picture the dog does looked worried. But I’m guessing they meant: “… finds
inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.” (last comma optional)
Then there is the controversial Oxford comma – also called the serial comma. The
Oxford rule states an optional comma should follow the penultimate (next to last) item when
listing three or more items and precede “and.” The basic rule says no comma is necessary
because the “and” represents a pause (or comma), and is therefore redundant. However,
leaving it out can be a source of confusion.
For example, the following sentences are correctly punctuated, but could leave the
“Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and
As is, the reader may think that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall are Haggard’s ex-
wives. Common sense may suggest that Kristofferson and Duval were the other interviewees.
Still, a comma preceding “and” would eliminate any confusion.
How about this one:
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Are the author’s parents Ayn Rand and God? Not likely. For one, Ayn Rand (a 20th
century writer/philosopher) bore no children and was an atheist. Again, though, an Oxford
comma erases all doubt.
Here is another:
“The speaker lineup will include the world’s most famous serial killers, the Dalai Lama and
It would be ludicrous to believe the writer of this sentence was suggesting that the Dalai
Lama and the pope are serial killers. While a comma before “and” would eliminate any
ambiguity, opponents of the Oxford comma (and there are many), argument that there are
other ways to clarify.
For example, if the author had written,
“The speaker lineup will include the Dalai Lama, the pope and the world’s most famous
serial killers,” there is no confusion.
Another argument that Oxford comma supporters overlook is that the added comma
causes confusion as often as it provides clarification.
“The student thanked her principal, Kanye West, and her little brother.”
I don’t know about you, but I certainly hope Kanye West is not the student’s principal.
Removing the Oxford comma would make it clear we are talking about three different people.
Well, that’s it for today. Hope all of you have a safe and restful break next week.