Say Hello to the Comical Comma
Updated: Mar 23
Remember newspapers? The time-honored tradition of paper scattered across your Sunday morning breakfast table may be a thing of the past, but some of its legacy remains. For one, there's a little thing called AP Style. A style happens when there's no clear right or wrong way to write something (picture the Grammar Police shrugging), so a group decides how they want it to appear in their publications. Yes, that's a group — as in a bunch of newspaper publishers.
"AP" stands for Associated Press, the agreed-upon style of writing and grammar usage that most newspapers and magazines in the U.S. adopted in 1953. Since then, its rules have guided reporters (everyone from the cub who learned on obituaries to the ace columnist pontificating on the latest sports scores) ... and it includes a dismissal of the Oxford comma.
WHAT'S THE OXFORD COMMA?
Unless you've been told the secret, the Oxford comma may sound like something ethereal that floated out of an eminent university — an exotic concept that couldn't possibly affect people in the modern world. Guess again.
Put simply, the Oxford comma is used as the final comma in lists. More specifically, it coordinates with "and" to lead into the final item on any list you write. And even more to the point, the Oxford comma disses the word "and."
So, you can see how there's tension between those in the news industry and just about everybody else. To reporters and PR people (who love reporters), the and does just fine, most of the time, by itself. It doesn't usually need some extra little piece of punctuation hanging around and being a pest. Let's look at some familiar examples:
AP Style: For dinner, she ate salad, chicken and mashed potatoes.
Other Styles: For dinner, she ate salad, chicken, and mashed potatoes.
DOES AP STYLE EVER USE THE OXFORD COMMA?
Yes, AP Style does allow for use of the Oxford comma when it helps with clarity. Because being clear is one of the most important things in Journalism. You wouldn't want to confuse your readers about something worthy of being in the news, right?
Journalists do use the Oxford comma when a list is complex. This means, if the list complicates itself with additional uses of conjunctions like "and," then we use the Oxford comma for clarity. Here's how:
AP Simple List: For lunch, she ate a salad, a chicken salad sandwich and berries.
Complex List: For lunch, she ate a salad, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and berries.
See that "and" in the second sandwich? It made the difference.
COMMAS, IN GENERAL
It's important for writers to understand where commas belong and where to leave them out. Books, such as Eats, Shoots & Leaves will make you laugh, though I prefer the kiddie version because the drawings are adorable. And they do make some good points. Missing or extra commas can really change your meaning. For example:
The panda walks into a restaurant. He eats, shoots and leaves.
A panda walks into a restaurant. He eats shoots and leaves.
So, is he eating shoots and leaves, or is he committing murder to get out of paying the bill?
The argument for knowing your commas, in general, can be summed up by this:
No Commas: Susie loves cooking her family and her dog.
With Commas: Susie loves cooking, her family, and her dog.
AP Style: Susie loves cooking, her family and her dog.
It's so important to understand these little marks, because they can help your readers grasp your meaning or make them laugh out loud at your (probably) unintended joke. Once you've mastered the comma (I really recommend the books), you'll be able to communicate with more clarity ... and far less bloodshed.