Do rules about how to use commas make you turn purple? No wonder! Let’s see if we can make them easier.
Commas are a relatively recent invention. When the Romans ﬁrst started writing things down, they didn’t have punctuation marks. They didn’t have spaces for that matter, or lower case letters.
Just as spaces showed a reader when one word stopped and another started, so commas told a reader when to pause and take a breath. They were especially welcome when sentences grew longer than “Me hungry. Kill deer.”
Try reading this sentence out loud: “At the grocery we bought the following items: peas and carrots and macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings.”
Obviously you need to replace some of the "and"s with commas, but which ones? That will depend on how many separate items appeared on the cash register tape. Did you buy peas, carrots, a box of dry macaroni, a package of cheese, a whole chicken, and some frozen dumplings for a total of six items? Or did you buy three: peas and carrots, macaroni and cheese, and chicken and dumplings? Read the two versions aloud and listen for the differences.
Other comma rules apply to things like appositives, direct address, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. You won’t need such esoteric terms if you apply the pause rule. Consider this scenario. A ﬁre occurred in the middle of the night at a rooming house where several men were living. Deaths resulted. How many died?
“The men who were asleep died in the ﬁre.” (The sleepers died. The poker-players did not.) “The men, who were asleep, died in the ﬁre.” (They were all asleep and they all died.)
Listen for the pauses. Add commas.
As an aside, academics sometimes argue over what is called the Oxford comma. That’s the one that appears before the ﬁnal “and” in a series. When I read a series of terms (like pens, notebooks, pencils, and erasers), I hear a pause after pencils, and I always use the Oxford comma. In other words, I follow my own rule about hearing commas. You may, however, encounter an editor who thinks that extra comma is not only unnecessary but adds an extra expense—one likely to drag the publisher into instant bankruptcy. She will tell you that a comma takes the place of a conjunction, so you never need both. My advice? Don’t waste your breath on an argument in which both sides are right. Gracefully bow out, taking your Oxford commas with you. (Because editors always win.)
If you want to read more, these sections come from The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese, now available in a Kindle edition for only $2.99.