Punctuation rules are confusing, particularly those surrounding commas, semi-colons, and dashes. In this post, I tackle the comma: when to use it, and how much is too much.
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford Comma refers to the comma used to separate items in a list, particularly before the “and”. The perfect example of this is
While common sense can help to sort out problems such as this one, when the reader must pause to engage critical thinking skills to sort this out, it pulls them from the narrative and spoils the experience.
Commas and Conjunctions
Use a comma before a conjunction with two independent clauses, but not when there is only one independent clause. For example:
Two independent clauses: I want to eat, and I want to sleep. [Both clauses on either side of the conjunction can stand alone as their own sentences.]
One independent clause: I want to eat and sleep. [Only “I want to eat” can stand on its own as an independent clause.]
Semicolons vs. Commas
In a long list, where there are already commas, use semicolons to separate items in a list:
Once Upon A Time has several subplots going: Rumplestiltskin and Belle, who also double as Beauty and the Beast; Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, which serves as the segue into the Land of Untold Stories arc; and The Dr. Whale/Dr. Frankenstein connection, which may wind up saving Storybrook from evil, once again.
Semicolons are also used to separate two independent, yet related clauses (without a conjunction):
Some fans might say that Rumplestiltskin is the quintessential villain; the Evil Queen comes in a close second.
With the exception of the list rule, a semicolon should never be used in place of a comma, or a colon, for that matter. Note: see example above for proper colon use (or the start of this sentence). In general, a colon denotes a list to follow.
Commas After Conjunctions
Commas should NEVER be used after conjunctions (this is one of my pet peeves). Though we often pause after conjunctions like “and”, it is not correct to put a comma there. Consider my horrible example from above:
I want to eat and, if I can ever find the time, I want to sleep.
If you were to read this aloud, it might sound right, but it’s grammatically incorrect. Per the rule above, the comma should come before the “and”.
I want to eat, and if I can ever find the time, I want to sleep.
This is correct as the phrase “and if I can ever find the time” is an aside. See note below regarding the use of commas and asides.
Is it ever okay to break the rules?
Sometimes, in dialogue, it is okay to break the rules. For example, in I Was, Am, Will Be Alice, Pete, Alice’s boyfriend, asks:
Could I see, like, dinosaurs, or travel to see how mankind evolves a couple a thousand years from now?
Though technically, this isn’t exactly rule breaking, as it is correct to put commas around an aside in a sentence (giving additional information without which the sentence is still an independent clause), “like” is more of a speech habit than an aside, but the commas work in this context.