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Copy editing, Tips & tricks

The Comma Manifesto: How Commas Save Lives

comma gives grandpa a chanceIs it Let’s eat grandpa! or Let’s eat, grandpa!?

I always say: Let’s give grandpa a chance!

Recently, I had an exchange of opinions with a colleague about… (wait for it!) the importance of commas and comma placement in a sentence. Since I’m writing about it, the topic obviously gave me food for thought. For people who are not in this writing business, it may seem a bit trivial. But even a light topic as this one is worth discussing.

Let me explain why.


The importance of commas

This colleague of mine argued that these days no one is placing that much importance on commas. Some authors of news articles on the web, for example, seem to have a comma-phobia. Commas seem to be very scarce, and this scarcity makes the articles more airy and the information easier to digest.

Now, I’m a comma freak. And as you can imagine, the arguments above struck me really hard; buuuuut… they didn’t take me by surprise. I’ve kind of noticed this comma scarcity trend throughout the web. And to me, this scarcity may be the result of two kinds of copywriting:

  • really bad copywriting: the authors of the comma-free articles have no respect for punctuation rules because – more often than not – they don’t even know they exist, and their copy reflects this… obliviousness.
  • really good copywriting: the authors are real wordsmiths who put lots of hard work into making their copy easy to read and understand, without abusing comma use.

If you don’t have time to tweak and refine every piece of writing to the last comma, that’s okay. Just don’t omit the comma where the copy asks for it. However, if you take your time when writing any piece of copy, the end result will be more than satisfactory for you, as a professional. ‘Kind of tricky when you’re working with deadlines,’ you might think. Well, expertise comes in time, with good practice!

One thing’s for sure: unless you’re writing really short sentences (example: Mary eats apples.), you need to use commas to effectively express your ideas – especially the more complex ones. This is why the comma was invented in the first place: to express ideas as accurately as possible on paper; to provide sentences/clauses/ written ideas with the right meaning.

Comma placement

This is a tricky one. Besides copywriting, I do a bit of copy editing as well, and I often run into these 3 issues:

1. The serial comma (a.k.a the Oxford comma) omission. Using the serial comma is more of a style issue. Writers can choose whether to include it in their writing guidelines or not. However, the serial comma adds more clarity and there are times when it is truly necessary. For the sake of consistency, I choose to include it in my guidelines.

Example: I ate some blue cheese, peanut butter, and blueberry and vanilla muffins. (with serial comma)

I ate some blue cheese, peanut butter and blueberry and vanilla muffins. (without serial comma)

Here’s a strong case for using the serial comma: Serial Comma, courtesy of Grammar Girl.

2. The comma splice. I get this a lot – example: It’s such a beautiful day, we should go for a walk in the park. Instead of the comma separating the two sentences, there should be either a semi colon or a full spot, or the sentence should be rephrased as follows: As it’s such a beautiful day, we should go for a walk in the park. Here’s a detailed explanation about the comma splice issue.

3. The comma omission. This brings us back to the beginning of the article. My personal piece of advice: Do not omit commas! Instead, try to rephrase your sentences. It may take longer and more work, but this way you’ll make sure that your ideas are expressed accurately, and that your commas save lives… so to speak. 🙂

These are just some comma mistakes that I often run into. But there are plenty other out there. Here’s a more detailed list of the Most comma mistakes, and a detailed list of rules regarding comma use.

Better avoid getting on that mistakes list. 😉


How important are commas to you? Do you use the serial comma? What comma mistakes do you often run into? Please, share your thoughts below – especially if you’re a comma freak like me. 🙂


About Emma

Shameless Idealist


2 thoughts on “The Comma Manifesto: How Commas Save Lives

  1. Great blog post. I love the grandpa example!
    And I’m always baffled that people shy away from using Oxford commas. They are one of the best way to clarify what you’re saying, especially if used when listing things as per your example.

    Posted by Matt Reilly | May 3, 2013, 1:51 pm

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