Comma Karma & the Punctuation Police
Should I have a comma, here? What about here of course? The bigger question for any writer or editor is does it matter? Today, I’m talking about the karma of commas and the role of the punctuation police. Are you in danger of receiving an arrest warrant?
In a previous post, “The Grammar Mafia,” I offered my satirical take on common grammatical errors. I’m sure at least a few people probably thought I was serious about starting my own grammar mafia to punish those who offend the English language. Now, I plan to confuse those folks even more! The punctuation police consists of those individuals, both writers and editors, who believe their way of employing commas and other punctuation is the ONLY way. Even book reviewers sometimes get in on the act, attacking authors for committing punctuation felonies.
The problem? Unlike much of grammar, the use of punctuation has few (if any) laws. We have guidelines — suggestions. We have style guides to offer advice. Each style guide will differ in its so-called rules. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), long considered the bible of the publishing industry, describes very different rules from other guides, like the Associated Press style guide, mainly used by journalists. Then we have the American Psychological Association style guide, the Modern Language Association style guide, and who knows how many other, lesser known guides. It seems every organization must develop its own.
And then there’s house style.
Yep, publishing houses will often craft their own style guide, usually based on CMS but often diverging from it in major ways. What are we to do?
I stick with CMS, which means I often run afoul of the punctuation police. Why? For one, I commit the capital offense of leaving off the comma before the word too. I’m also guilty of criminal comma assault by including the Oxford (or serial) comma. Let me demonstrate:
CMS way: I like apples too.
Punctuation police way: I like apples, too.
CMS way: I like apples, oranges, and pears.
Punctuation police way: I like apples, oranges and pears.
The second pair demonstrate the Oxford comma. I prefer it because the final comma helps avoid confusion. However, when it comes to the word too, that comma has always looked odd and unnecessary to me, and CMS agrees. I guarantee there are people who cringe at the omission of the “too” comma. Some will even get downright infuriated about it. Trouble is, punctuation has few rules and relies heavily on style. And style is a personal choice.
So let’s all take a deep breath, relax, and release our comma biases. When I read a book in which the author uses the “too” comma and omits the Oxford comma, I don’t get mad and rant about it. I say, “Oh well, it’s their style.”
Please join me in banishing the punctuation police. Free the comma!