Let’s be honest, the proper use of commas is not nearly as important as physical beauty in our society. In fact, if you’re in the top five percentile for your gender, you can go very far in life without using commas at all. This treatise is for the rest of us.
Rule #1– In a short series of three or four words, you don’t need a comma after “and.” Which example looks better to you?
(A) My hemorrhoids are stupid, annoying and counter-productive.
(B) My hemorrhoids are stupid, annoying, and counter-productive.
I vote for (A) because you don’t need to pause after “annoying.” Did I mention that commas function as pauses? It’s true. By comparison, a period is a potty break. And a new paragraph is a visit to the eye doctor.
Life Lesson: Using an extra comma just because you can is elitist. That’s like wearing gold cufflinks to your unemployed father’s birthday party.
Rule #2 – I allow the use of a comma before “and” if the series has two or more items with two or more words. Example: “Bobby, get me a head coach, an antiquities dealer, a seamstress, a grayish/brownish rodent, and a chef with a tall hat.”
Do you see the value in the final comma? Without it, one may attempt to link “grayish/brownish” with both the rodent and the chef (and possibly hats). I hear you mocking me because everyone knows chefs are not grayish/brownish. But what if the sentence above were changed to: “Bobby, get me an event coordinator for a non-profit, an ABBA tribute band, a day laborer, a small rodent and a chef.”
Without the comma, one could infer that the protagonist wants both a small rodent and a small chef. Who’s laughing now?
Life Lesson: Organize your thoughts so you don’t confuse or anger readers. There’s enough trouble in this world. Be an advocate for peace. Didn’t the hippies teach you anything?
Rule #3 – Place a comma before “and” if at least one item in the series includes the word “and.” Here are two variations of correct usage:
(A) “Next time you’re in the kitchen, would you kindly bring me a bowl of cashews, half a watermelon, and a Scotch and soda?”
(B) “Next time you’re in the kitchen, would you kindly bring me a pint of ice cream, a rum and Coke, and some Windex?”
If you haven’t gotten the point by now, hopefully this will bring it home:
(C) “Next time you’re in the kitchen, would you kindly bring me a Scotch and soda, a rum and Coke, a gin and tonic, and a Thelma and Louise DVD?”
Life Lesson: Didn’t the hippies teach you anything?
Rule #4 – Use a comma to separate two phrases that are each a complete sentence and are linked, yet could stand on their own (i.e., not dependent on one another). Example: “I have an excellent sense of smell, and you need a breath mint.”
A comma not only separates the two “sentences,” but gives the second one more impact by virtue of the pause before the punch line.
Life Lesson: Sometimes you just have to listen to experts and not question them.
Rule #5 – In a quotation, place the comma before the end quote mark (e.g., “When your hemorrhoids are flaring up,” she said, “please bring me a breath mint.”).
Life Lesson: If hippies had used more breath mints, they would be running the world today.
Well, that’s it for now. Check this site periodically so you don’t miss my forthcoming dissection of i.e. and e.g.
Joe Fumo is a Milwaukee-area business writing consultant who has published two humorous fiction collections: “God’s Web Site” and “Things To Do This Week” (purchasable on Amazon.com) He has been a newspaper reporter, corporate newsletter editor and public relations account representative. Thus, the need to write silly pieces.