Saturday, October 20, 2007

Don't Neglect Commas in Lists

I goty into another lovely set of langauge and writing discussions in the Writers' Workshop at Helium today. The topic that got me going was comma use in lists.

While I added my two cents to the thread, I don't like to expound at great length during a discussion. I hate to come off sounding like a know-it-all both because it opens me up to nit-pickery and because really hammering a topic from a soapbox tends to shut off further conversation.

All of which means that I am going to give my opinion on the subject now.

Traditionally, commas are used to separate items in a list and a conjunction is used before the last to indicate that it is, well, the last. Thus, I write, “Shelly put containers of orange, apple, and cranberry juice in her cart.”

Contrast that with, “Shelly put containers of orange, apple and cranberry juice in her cart.” Does this mean that she put more than one container of the same juice blend in her cart, two different kinds (orange and cranberry-apple), or that she chose three kinds of juice? That little comma makes a difference.

People commonly ignore the last comma in a list on the grounds that they don't need it unless the items in the list are complex. I disagree on two grounds. First, why have a rule that only applies sometimes. Either the rule holds true or it doesn't. Second, why waste time determining how complex your list has to be before it requires a comma? Simply use one every time and you will have a comma when you need one.

I admit to being a traditionalist on matters of grammar, but in this case the traditional method makes more sense. Comma overuse has created an atmosphere where writers abolish them at every opportunity. I agree with the impulse but, in this case, I think the poor little comma should be allowed to remain.




My husband and I argue about this all the time. I love commas, he wants to leave them out. I am emailing him your link. : )