Comma Overload

I hit an interesting milestone the other day. I was copy editing a marketing piece for a magazine and stopped dead when I realized I didn’t know whether to add a comma.

I’m not talking about a difficult comma issue, either. It wasn’t one of those things that sort of falls between the rules or one of those situations where you might want to disregard rules.

For example, I would class the following sentence as a little tricky comma-wise:

Before you go to bed, finish your homework, brush your teeth, and put on your pajamas.

In a publication that doesn't use serial commas, this is tricky because usually you don’t put a comma before the conjunction introducing the last item in a list: red, white and blue. However, there’s a separate rule that says you do often use commas between complete clauses: “Stan has made many friends since he retired, and Betty is no exception.” (This rule also allows you to omit that comma if the clauses are short or sentence is clear enough without it. But the basic rule is that complete clauses joined by a conjunction are separated by a comma.)

So which rule wins here? Me, I vote for including the extra comma after “teeth.” But anyone who disagrees is right, too.

Here’s a situation where, though the rules clearly call for a comma, you might want to skip it anyway.

On Tuesday, Larry spotted the car, which, he decided, was certainly the one he had seen speeding from the scene of the crime.

Do you keep that comma before “which”? The rules certainly say to. Nonrestrictive “which” clauses are supposed to be set off with commas. But when the “which” is immediately followed by another comma -- or when the sentence has a lot of other commas -- you can skip it.

But neither of these scenarios accounts for my confusion the other day. Nope, I was looking at a sentence like this:

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

And I could not for nearly a minute remember whether to put a comma after “lunch.” Why? Because for the last seven years or so, I’ve been editing in two different styles: AP and Chicago. AP says not to use the comma before the conjunction that introduces the last item in a list. Chicago says you should.

This comma before the conjunction is called the serial comma or sometimes the Oxford comma. And it’s strictly a style thing. Neither right, nor wrong -- except when you're trying to follow a specific style.

At that moment, after years of toggling back and forth between the two styles, some wiring in my brain began sizzling and smoking. Now, after years of being neutral on the serial comma controversy, I'm starting to wish publishing would just come to a consensus.


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