Commas After Inc., States, and Years
Proofreading is very different from reading. At least, for me it is. When I’m proofreading, I’m looking for commas and skipped words and extra words and sentences without subjects and faulty parallels and a million little things like that.
In that mode, I can read a whole article twice and learn nothing from it. A piece on a restaurant, for example, could contain lots of information on the food it serves, the chef’s background, its history, and on and on. But if you quizzed me on any of it I’d flunk. Reading for information and reading for errors are two very different mental processes.
Interestingly, the other mode doesn’t quite work the same. When I’m reading for content – articles, books, etc. -- certain typos and editing matters jump out at me. I suppose it’s just because I’ve invested so much energy into whatever mental faculty scans for typos that it’s hard to turn off.
And that’s unfortunate because the minute a misplaced comma or other typo catches my eye, it automatically flips a switch in my mind, turning off the brain engine that reads for substance and powering up the part that scrutinizes form.
Then it’s hard to get back into whatever I was reading.
The most common errors that do this to me have to do with commas. They’re illustrated in this sentence:
It was March 14, 2009 when Widgets, Inc. moved its headquarters from Flint, Mich. to Detroit.
I guess if we’re being technical, the comma choices in that sentence aren’t really errors. But from an editing standpoint they are. And when I see them in published material, I think: This piece was not edited by professionals well versed in style.
It’s an instant prejudice that will color my perception of the source forever.
Here’s where the commas in that sample sentence fell short. In professional editing, years, “Inc.,” and states after cities are considered parenthetical information. They’re set-asides, if you will.
My wife, Mary, works in entertainment
My wife, Mary works in entertainment.
The name Mary is just an aside – a “by the way, the person I just referred to as my wife happens to be named Mary.”
A similar principle applies to years, Inc.s, and states. They’re often included parenthetically. But that’s not as intuitively clear. They’re actually a little different. Mary, in the example above, is something called an appositive, whereas years, Inc.s, etc. are not. So, unlike with the Mary business, the comma rules for Inc. and states you actually have to know. Lately it seems that fewer and fewer of the people producing written content do.
Here are the rules of most professional editing:
* Years after a specific date are set off with commas: “March 14, 2008, was a good day.” But a month and year without the date does not take commas: “March 2008 was a good month.” The same is true of seasons. No comma: Spring 2008 was a good time for me.
* Inc., LLC, and items like that don't need commas. Widgets Inc. had a great quarter. That’s purely a style matter – and one that doesn’t come up much in journalism because Inc. is usually omitted altogether: Widgets had a great quarter. But if a comma comes before Inc., one should always come after.
* States after cities get the same treatment. Any time there’s a comma before “Mich.” one should come after, too. (By the way, news style prefers these abbreviations to two-letter postal codes like MI and book style just spells them out. But all these forms are acceptable.)