Comma Odds & Ends: Using Commas with Other Forms of Punctuation

Commas and Quotation Marks

In American English, if you are using a quote that is directly followed by a comma, place the comma inside the quotation marks. Do this even if the comma is not part of the quote.

(Note: This is true as well for periods; however, it is not true for question marks, exclamation points, colons, and semicolons. As a rule, place these punctuation techniques outside of the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quoted language.)

Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.

I know, I know: this doesn’t make sense. Why put something inside a quote if it is not part of the quote? And heck, doesn’t this defeat the entire purpose of quotation marks, since they are supposed to differentiate between what is part of the quote and what is not? (Sigh.)

Well, the British agree with me, so they place the comma outside the quotation marks, which shows that it is not part of the quote:

Example: Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story”, a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind. (British English)

However, British writers do place the comma within the quotation marks if the comma is part of the original quoted language. This deviation allows them to differentiate and to express more precise word-for-word (or, in this case, comma-for-comma) quotations than those seen in the American style.

Still, even if our friends across the pond have a more logical approach than ours, those of us writing in the States should stick with the conventions of American English. (However, if you’re writing for a British audience, make sure to use British comma placement.)

Commas and Parentheses

If you use a parenthetical phrase mid-sentence where a comma occurs (which happens frequently in my writing, as you may have noticed), always place the comma after the parenthetical phrase:

Example (correct): Since commas are important to writing (as pauses are important to speech), you should never neglect to use them in your prose.

Example (incorrect): Since commas are important to writing, (as pauses are important to speech) you should never neglect to use them in your prose.

There is sound logic behind this comma placement. In the sentence above, the parenthetical phrase, “as pauses are important to speech,” is in response to the clause, “since commas are important to writing.” To show that the parenthetical phrase is to be grouped with that preceding clause, the comma encloses the parenthetical material within the clause. In this sense, the comma enables the clause to swallow up the parenthetical phrase. In effect, the parenthetical material becomes directly linked with the clause it modifies and not with the clause that follows.

Commas and Periods

In rare cases, writers are faced with situations in which they must place a comma after a period. To the novice eye, placing a comma directly after a period looks odd, so new writers often hesitate at the thought of this particular comma placement.

How is this handled? Simple: Just set aside your fears and boldly place the comma after the period. Look at the example below.

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr., which is why I keep a copy of his collected writings near my desk.

Related Point: This practice of following an abbreviating period with a comma applies to commas, but it does not apply to periods at the ends of sentences. If you have a situation that seems to call for two adjacent periods, do not use two periods. Simply write one period, and it will do double-duty by serving both functions. Consider the example below, in which I have simplified the sentence above so that Jr. comes at the end of the sentence. Notice that the single period of that sentence serves two functions: (1) it acts as the period for abbreviating the title Junior, and (2) it acts as the period to end the sentence.

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Now let’s throw a parenthetical phrase into the mix, just to see how it is handled with the ending period:

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (one reason I keep a copy of his collected essays near my desk).

In this latest case, I use two separate periods, since the two periods are not adjacent, but separated by the parenthetical phrase. See how that works? (Note: This applies as well to the use of the abbreviation for etcetera: etc.)

A Quick Comma Detail: Did you notice that I placed a comma before the title, “Jr.” in the final example, but not in the two examples that precede it? Which is the correct way–Martin Luther King, Jr. (comma), or Martin Luther King Jr. (no comma)? The answer: it’s your choice. The comma that precedes titles like Jr. and Sr. is optional. I prefer to use it, so long as it does not disrupt the sentence. I omitted it from the first two sentences, since I did not want it to distract my reader from the comma placement I was discussing in those example sentences. Otherwise, my default is to include the comma, since it shows a slight change in pitch that occurs when expressing such titles.

Next Up: Should We Place Commas between Two Adjectives?

The next article will cover the use (or lack) of commas between adjectives. After that, we will discuss the stylistic use of commas, and then we will conclude this series on commas and move on to other punctuation techniques.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).



Comma Odds & Ends: The (Optional?) Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford Comma?

One frequent application of the comma is placing it between items in a series (a list of items). For example, consider the sentence below. Notice that the last comma of the series (the one just before and) is optional:

Future articles will cover colons, semicolons, and dashes. (final comma included)

I could just as easily write:

Future articles will cover colons, semicolons and dashes. (final comma omitted)

Both of the sentences above are perfectly clear and acceptable. That extra comma, optional in the case above, is called the “Oxford comma.” (Some refer to it as “the serial comma.”) Examples like the one above have sparked some controversy, even among the Punctuation Gods, over whether the inclusion of the Oxford comma should be standard. The standard approach in American English is to include the comma unless it distorts the sentence’s meaning. Still, despite this new standard in American English, many writers disagree with placing that additional comma, so they continue to resist the new trend. And for some writers such  as journalists, this choice to omit the Oxford comma is not merely a punctuational pet peeve, since these writers must work with spatial limitations. (I wonder, though, if this practice will change with the proliferation of online newspapers, since the omitted comma was a consideration of the printed word–of conserving physical space as well as materials like ink and paper. Perhaps now more journalists will come over to the Dark Side and begin including those Oxford commas. Who knows?)

While the Oxford comma is often optional, there are cases in which its presence is necessary to the sentence’s message. Consider the two sentences below:

1. I enjoy experiencing movies and writing.

2. I enjoy experiencing, movies, and writing.

What am I saying here? It depends on which sentence you read. In the first sentence, I am saying:

I enjoy experiencing movies and experiencing writing.

In the second sentence, I make an altogether different statement:

I enjoy the act of experiencing, the act of seeing movies, and the act of writing.

But what happens if, when trying to express the point that I enjoy these three activities, I place the first comma but omit the Oxford comma before and? Let’s try it:

I enjoy experiencing, movies and writing.

This nonsensical sentence doesn’t really express anything. Speak it aloud, pausing at the comma. Here is how it sounds:

I enjoy experiencing [pause] movies and writing.

So, if I want to express the notion that I enjoy those three things—namely, (1) experiencing, (2) movies, and (3) writing—I must include that Oxford comma. In this case, it is not merely optional. If I never include the final comma in this series and if I follow that rule in the sentence above, there is no way to know what this sentence states.

The Argument against the Oxford Comma

I should mention that there are cases in which the Oxford comma is not optional, in the opposite sense: sometimes, writers must omit it to express the message they intend. Consider the sentence below:

I offer this series of articles for my readers, my students, and anyone interested in language.

In the sentence above, the second comma could throw a syntactical monkey-wrench into my message if I am trying to express the notion that the group of people known as “my readers” consists of my students and anyone interested in language. If I want to express that notion, I should omit the Oxford comma:

I offer this series of articles for my readers, my students and anyone interested in language.

Citing examples like the sentence above, opponents of the Oxford comma argue that the default (omitting the comma) errs to the side of caution in avoiding the ambiguities that the additional comma sometimes creates. This too is a valid approach.

Note: Observant readers will notice that the pro-comma people could argue the opposite position: if the writer was trying to express the idea that the articles are for (1) readers, (2) students, and (3) anyone interested in language, the practice of omitting the comma hinders the clarity of this sentence. If both approaches leave room for ambiguity, which approach should we follow? (The answer: it depends.)

My Position: Conscious, Case-by-Case Writing

In my experience, omitting the Oxford comma causes more trouble than it avoids, since most cases of ambiguity are caused not by the presence of the additional comma, but by its absence. Still, this rule is not an absolute. When all is said and done, finding your position on the Oxford comma is a matter of conscious writing. If you decide to include the Oxford comma as a default practice, just be aware that there are cases where that final comma disrupts the notion you are trying to express and that you should make exceptions in those cases. Likewise, if omitting the Oxford comma is your default, just remember that sometimes you will need its presence to express the notion you are trying to write. No matter your side on the Oxford comma debate, always be prepared to allow for the exception.

Also, regardless of your Oxford-comma default, don’t get too caught up in the dogma of your position, as this may limit your perspective and blind you to other possibilities. Consider again the last sentence we explored. While some might argue over whether to include the Oxford comma, I might step out of that debate entirely by rewriting the sentence using a colon:

I offer this series of articles for my readers: my students and anyone interested in language.

Or, since writing is meant to be read, I might try avoiding the tautology of saying I offer my articles for readers (duh!) by writing the sentence this way:

I offer this series of articles for my students and for anyone interested in language.

Here’s another approach: if I want a pause for emphasis, I will try a stylistic comma (not the same as the Oxford comma):

I offer this series of articles for my students, and for anyone interested in language.

If I want that pause to lend more spontaneity to the sentence, I might try a dash instead:

I offer this series of articles for my students—and for anyone interested in language. (I prefer this version–but that’s because I love dashes.)

If a subtle, whispering tone is my aim, I might try a parenthetical phrase:

I offer this series of articles for my students (and for anyone interested in language).

Or, I might aim for something completely different:

This series of articles is not just for students; it’s for anyone interested in language.

All of those sentences are improvements over the original. There is no question as to the message they convey. These improvements demonstrate why developing a toolbox of punctuation techniques is important. While the comma is an excellent clarifying tool, it is not the only tool at our disposal.

This relates to a truth I have found about writing: there is no rule of writing that takes the place of consciously considering the message you are trying to express in a given sentence. The best writers consider each idea and sentence they write on an individual, case-by-case basis, and then they write accordingly. Although they recognize rules as helpful guidelines, such writers never lean lazily against any writing practice. With that thought in mind, feel free to practice a default, but do not sacrifice versatility and consciousness for convention and dogma. Writing practices serve your purposes; you do not serve theirs.

Next Up: Placing Commas beside Other Forms of Punctuation

The next article covers ways that the comma interacts with other forms of punctuation like quotation marks or parentheses. For example, if a parenthetical phrase occurs at the end of a clause that is set off by a comma, should the comma go before or after the parenthetical phrase? And what about quotation marks and commas: if a comma occurs at the end of a quote, does it go inside or outside the quotation marks? Why do some writers place the comma inside the quotes, while others place it outside?

I will answer these questions in the upcoming article, “Comma Odds & Ends: Using Commas with Other Forms of Punctuation.” Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).