Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

Punctuating the end of a quotation can be tricky, especially in American English, where some punctuation marks default to the inside of the quotation marks, while others can be placed outside the quotation marks. The divisions break down into two groups:

Inside Quotation Marks: When ending a quotation, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, even if the period or comma is not part of the original quotation.

Outside or Inside Quotation Marks: However, when ending a quotation in a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or semicolon, place the punctuation outside the quotation, unless that punctuation is part of the original quoted language. If the punctuation is part of the original quoted language, place it inside the quotation marks.

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.

Treat periods the same way–always put them inside:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story.”

Well . . . the period goes inside the quotation marks  in most cases. If the sentence ends in a parenthetical citation, the period goes after the citation. This placement encloses the citation within the larger sentence to show that the citation refers to that sentence. In a sense, the sentence swallows up the parenthetical citation with that period. Look:

The broadcasting legend put it best when he said, “And that’s the rest of the story” (Harvey).

But other than that one exception, the period’s default placement is inside the quotation marks. However, question marks works differently.

If the question mark is not part of the quoted language or dialogue line, place the question mark outside the quotation marks:

Why did Paul Harvey choose to end all of his programs with his signature line, “And that’s the rest of the story”?

However, if the question mark is part of the quoted language, put it inside the quotation marks:

Ed asked, “Don’t you remember Paul Harvey’s radio program?”

Removing Parts of Quotations: Ellipses

When you remove part of a quotation for the sake of efficiency or clarity, use an ellipsis (three dots) to replace the omitted part.

Here’s an example of using an ellipsis to show an omission from a quotation:

First, here is the full text from the quote. I have marked the part that will be omitted in bold:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Although a normal ellipsis is allowable for showing omissions from a quote, many writers prefer to put the ellipsis in brackets to show that the ellipsis is not part of the original quote. After all, the original language could have a stylistic ellipsis to show a long pause or a hesitation in speech. Bracketed ellipses allow writers to differentiate between a stylistic ellipsis and an ellipsis of omission.

Here is how to frame the ellipsis of omission in brackets:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This use of brackets follows the larger rule for using brackets:

Brackets show an insertion of new material into a quotation.

To learn more about the ellipsis and its many applications in writing, click here.

Making Insertions and Replacements within Quotes: Brackets

Writers use brackets to add their own clarifications or adjustments to quotations. Here is an example:

Here is the original quote:

Senator Smith: “I will cast my vote only for laws ensuring that my African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that I have enjoyed.”

And here is the quote, adjusted to fit the writer’s third-person perspective of Smith:

Senator Smith stated that he would “cast [his] vote only for laws ensuring that [his] African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that [he has] enjoyed.”

Logically enough, the writer should discuss Senator Smith as he and not as I. The brackets show this shift in perspective, while indicating that the writer has adjusted Senator Smith’s original language.

Did you notice how the quote above actually incorporates Smith’s quotation into the writer’s own syntax? The transition is almost seamless, but almost is the key word: the quotation marks show readers where Smith’s quote begins—and where it ends.

To learn more about brackets, read on.

Next Up: More on Brackets

The next punctuation technique explored in “Punctuation Toolbox” is brackets (discussed briefly in the section directly above). Click the link below to learn more.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces 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).

Punctuation Toolbox, Introduction: Why Writers Need More Than Periods and Commas

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points. With a bit more consideration, they may think of some mid-sentence punctuation like the comma or the semicolon.

If your punctuation toolbox stops there—with periods, commas, and question marks—then I expect that you often struggle to put what you want to say in writing. Consider the first sentence of this article. You may have noticed that I used a colon (which looks like a dot over another dot) to introduce that list of the most commonly known punctuation techniques:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

But what if I did not know this function of the colon? How would I introduce my list?

Well, I might make the most common substitution of using a comma in place of a colon. After all, commas can be used to introduce certain elements in writing, like quotations. If I had used a comma, the sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Ugh. As you may have noticed, the problem with using a comma to introduce this list is that the term “end punctuation” appears to be the first item in the list when “end punctuation” should sum up all of the items that follow. That didn’t work.

Other writers may simply choose to put nothing there. Here is the sentence that this let-it-be approach yields:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the issue here? Now, that first item appears to be something known as “end punctuation periods.” This let-it-be approach didn’t work any better than the comma approach.

Others might try using a semicolon:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation; periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

This is the best solution so far, since it creates a clear-cut break between the category, “end punctuation,” and the list of examples that follows. The problem, though, is that introducing lists is not really a function of the semicolon, and this slight misuse confuses readers. Aside from one specific exception, the semicolon is used exclusively to combine two complete sentences. In other words, you might think of the semicolon as being able to replace a period–but with one stylistic difference: whereas the period creates a break and a disconnection between the two sentences, the semicolon creates flow and connection between the two sentences. And the phrase “between the two sentences” is the key; the semicolon would not be used to separate a mere list of words from a complete sentence.

Well, if a semicolon doesn’t work, then how about a period? Let’s try it:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation. Periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the problem now? Since the period brings the sentence to a full stop, the attempt backfires by leaving us with a sentence fragment error: a non-sentence written as if it is a sentence. While the first sentence is fine, the second “sentence” is not, in fact, a sentence. In other words, the list “periods, question marks, and exclamation points” is not a sentence, but the writer has set that list off as its own standalone sentence. This non-sentence-written-as-a-sentence deceives and confuses the poor reader.

Come on, dear writer: use a colon already! Here, once again, is our original sentence with the colon. Notice how clear-cut the message is:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

With the colon introducing the list, the commas serve their function of separating the items, so we know that the two-word term question marks is not two separate items—question and marks—but one item: question marks. The colon is not mistaken for combining two sentences (the problem with the semicolon), nor is it mistaken as part of the list (the issue with the comma). Simply put, the colon is the right tool for the job.

But it’s not the only tool for the job, although up to this point I have misled you to think so.

I could also replace the colon with a dash, if I intend a bit more spontaneity—a bit more ah-ha!—in introducing the list:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation—periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

My rule of thumb for using dashes: think of a dash as a replacement for colons and some commas, used when the writer wants a tone of spontaneity and suddenness in the punctuation. Think of a dash as a sudden colon or a spontaneous comma. It does not merely walk readers gently into the next part of the writing. It throws them into it! (You can read more about replacing commas with dashes by clicking here.)

If I want to be extremely clear, I might employ yet one more technique. This technique does not replace the colon, but it helps keep the items distinct and separate:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation: (1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

As you can see in this example, one use of parentheses is to set off numbers in a mid-sentence list. Notice that I used this technique after stating the total number of items in the list. (Look again: I told the reader beforehand that there would be three items in the list.) The numbering drives that point home, and it assists the commas in separating the three items further. It also acts as an at-a-glance visual aid for the reader, should she feel the need to reference the list later.

And, yes, I could also use this parenthetical item numbering with the dash introduction:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—(1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

Both examples are crystal-clear, aren’t they? But what if I used the numbers without setting them off in parentheses? The sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—1 periods, 2 question marks, and 3 exclamation points.

Yuck! That looks horrible. It looks horrible because we are conditioned to see numbers as pluralizing or quantifying the nouns they precede. In other words, when the reader sees the phrase “2 question marks,” she thinks that I am talking about two question marks, not “item number two: question marks.” See the difference? Notice how, with the parentheses separating the numbers from the language of the sentence, their role as numbering labels is clear.

Behold, dear reader, the power of advanced punctuation! The art of writing, first and foremost, involves writing exactly what you mean to say. A big part of developing that skill is in the words and phrases you use, but of equal importance are the absences between the words—the pauses, the lurches, the hesitations, the shifts, and the stops. Accomplishing these distinct effects is the number-one reason for building a diverse punctuation toolbox. Commas and periods are just the beginning.

Do you want to learn more about advanced punctuation? Read on!

Stay tuned for articles on advanced punctuation. In this series, entitled “Punctuation Toolbox,” I will commit articles to punctuation techniques for hyphens, dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheses, and more. I will post links to each article here, at the end of this introductory article.

Note: As this list grows with each article added to this series, you may notice that I will not include articles on the apostrophe. That’s because I’m going to commit two series to the apostrophe: “All You Need to Know about Apostrophes” and “Apostrophe Mania: All You Want to Know about Apostrophes.” Stay tuned for those series as well.

Next Up: More on the Colon!

In this article, I used the example of the colon to introduce the necessity of a developed punctuation toolbox. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what the colon does: it introduces! To learn more about the colon and its functions in writing, see the next article by clicking the link below:

Here are other punctuation techniques covered in “Punctuation Toolbox”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts 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).

All about Commas, Conclusion: Commas Are Essential to Writing

In closing this exploration of the comma, here is a fun example that drives home the importance of mastering this frequent yet often misunderstood writing tool. The example is slightly modified from an example that Lynne Truss shares in her punctuation handbook, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Consider the following sentence:

A woman without her man is nothing.

Not a good statement to make, is it? (When I present this sentence to a group of students, I become the target of many an angry glare from female students.)

Let’s improve this sentence by adding some commas:

A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Two commas—and nothing more—have drastically altered the meaning of this sentence. In fact, this second sentence expresses the very opposite message from that of the first.

Commas matter. Far too often, people think of commas as cute separating squiggles—useful to be sure, but hardly necessary. Transformed completely by the presence of two commas, the sentence above showcases the comma’s importance.

Granted, commas may not always make as drastic a change as the one seen in the example above, but they often do make for some kind of difference in meaning. And even if they do not change a sentence’s meaning, commas do tell our audience how to read our prose. Commas tell readers where to pause and where to lower intonation. Commas, without taking up any more than a single space of text, identify clauses, phrases, and words that act as modifying asides within larger sentences. Commas play much the same role that rests play in music and that negative space plays in visual art. To understand and apply the comma is to manipulate absence as well as presence in the art of writing; it gives you control not only over what is said, but also over what is not said.

With these points in mind, mastering this writing essential is worth your best effort.

Next up: Advanced Punctuation

As we have seen, the comma is an essential tool for expressing intonation and rhythm in writing. However, it isn’t our only punctuation tool. For example,  what if we want to show a long, drawn out hesitation? Or what if we want a pause between two complete sentences, but we do not want that pause to be a period? In these cases, we need to use punctuation techniques other than the comma.

The next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Punctuation Toolbox,” discusses such techniques. Stay tuned!

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts 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: Commas Support Conjunctions That Combine Two Sentences

Here’s a simple comma function: a comma should come before a coordinating conjunction whenever the coordinating conjunction combines two complete sentences.

At this point, you might be saying, “Whoa there, partner! What are coordinating conjunctions again?”

Coordinating conjunctions, as their name implies, coordinate two sentences or items (coordinating), even as they conjoin them (conjunction). They are often called conjunctions, for short. There are only seven coordinating conjunctions. The mnemonic FANBOYS will help you remember them:

For

And

Nor

But

Or

Yet

So

Conjunctions can combine all kinds of things. They can combine words, phrases, or even full sentences. However, when we use a coordinating conjunction to combine two full sentences, we should put a comma before that conjunction to show that it is combining two large and complete parts. The comma also creates a pause and a drop in pitch just before the conjunction to emphasize the point that the conjunction is leading into another complete sentence. (Remember those two comma functions? If not, check ’em out! Here are links: commas create pauses and commas create drops in pitch.)

Here is an example of how a comma precedes a coordinating conjunction:

Last year, Bob taught three literature courses, and he served on the department’s hiring committee.

Notice that I am using and to combine two complete, stand-alone sentences:

1. Bob taught three literature courses

2. He served on the department’s hiring committee.

The comma before and acts as a separating agent, since it adds additional force to the conjunction. It says to the reader, “I am combining two big things here—sentences that could stand alone. Beware, reader: this single sentence involves not one, but two complete (but related) messages.” Considering the point that commas represent pauses in our writing, that comma also says, “Pause before this and to recognize that you are about to read another complete, stand-alone idea.”  All of that—from a comma!

Here is a sentence that expresses the same essential idea as the sentence above. Notice, though, that it does not combine two full sentences; instead, it uses a compound verb:

Bob taught three literature courses and served on the department’s hiring committee.

There is no comma before and—and there doesn’t need to be. That is because and is not combining two complete sentences. It combines two verb phrases. Look:

Bob . . .

1. taught three literature courses (verb phrase—not a sentence)

and

2. served on the department’s hiring committee (verb phrase—not a sentence)

The presence of a comma (or lack thereof) in the sentences above acts as a visual cue so that readers know what is to come in the sentence. This is yet another function that commas serve in our writing.

Next Up: Can Comma Placement Be a Matter of Choice?

These comma articles have explored many applications of the comma, and many of these applications—like the pre-conjunction comma discussed in this article—are indeed matters of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate.

But are there cases in which comma placement is a matter of choice? For example, can we place a comma before a coordinating conjunction even if the “rule” discussed in this article says otherwise? Can we place some commas simply because we want to?

Sure we can! Read the next article to learn more. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Christopher AltmanAmericans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces 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: Should I Place Commas Between Adjectives?

Here’s a good question about commas:

“When I have multiple adjectives before a noun, should I place commas between those adjectives?”

I could have my own fleet of yachts if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this question (well, maybe not yachts—but definitely a few bass boats).

The answer: it depends! (Don’t you just love hearing that answer?)

What, though, does this decision depend on? To answer this question, here’s a quick rule of thumb for commas and adjectives:

Comma-between-Adjectives Rule of Thumb: If two adjectives precede the noun they modify, place commas between them if you would replace the comma with the word and. If and would not work there, since the adjectives seem inseparable, do not place a comma.

Confusing? An example will serve best:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Notice that there is a comma between painful and frigid, but not between frigid and winter. Why?

Remember the rule of thumb: if and can replace the comma, then the comma is correct. Let’s apply the rule to the sentence above:

The painful and frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (correct)

That works, doesn’t it? Now, just to be sure, let’s try adding and where we did not use a comma:

The painful and frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

It does not work even if we omit the adjective painful:

The frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

Ugh. That didn’t work. We’d best leave that second comma out.

Even though I have shared a working rule of thumb for commas separating adjectives, my inquisitive (and demanding) readers may still want an explanation of why commas sometimes fall between adjectives and why in other cases they do not. The answer is simple, but I think many teachers do not explain it well, since they too often use English grammar jargon in their explanations. Such so-called explanations only serve to accomplish the one thing that explanations should not do—fail to explain.

With that in mind, here is a working explanation for inquisitive minds. Let’s return to our example sentence:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Now, think about the adjectives painful and frigid. They each apply separately to the noun. I could remove one of these adjectives, and the sentence would still make sense:

The painful winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (frigid omitted)

The frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (painful omitted)

Those still make perfect sense; however, if I remove winter, the sentence would not make nearly as much sense:

The painful, frigid air bit into Bob’s bones. (winter omitted)

So, the notion of winter is an integral part of the noun air. Sure, painful and frigid allow the reader to reason that the air must be winter air, but I prefer the sentence that makes this point explicit.

How then is winter different from painful and frigid in the sentence above? Remember that winter is inseparable from the noun air, such that it actually becomes part of the noun. (In some cases, such adjectives become one with their nouns completely, as seen in the nouns bighead and freeway.)

Because winter becomes part of a larger noun, the noun is effectively made up of both an adjective (winter) and a noun (air). In other words, we are not talking about a thing known simply as air. We are talking about a thing called winter air. And that noun, winter air, is modified by two separate adjectives: painful and frigid. We can see it better if we restructure the sentence this way:

The winter air that bit into Bob’s bones was both painful and frigid.

Notice that in both versions of the sentence the adjectives painful and frigid modify, not merely the word air, but the adjective-noun combination winter air. If we placed a comma between winter and air, the adjective winter would be grouped with the adjectives that define it, and not with the noun.

Here is a third example. Think about the difference between those adjectives that are divided by commas and the one that is not:

Josie lives in a stylish, spacious loft apartment.

Think about it with the sentence reorganized:

Josie lives in a loft apartment that is stylish and spacious. (correct)

But not:

Josie lives in an apartment that is stylish, spacious, and loft. (incorrect)

The following diagram shows how these adjectives function in the two sentences above. Arrows represent how one word modifies another word–to show us which word(s) receive(s) description. Notice how the comma placement changes the function of the third adjective:

Comma-Adjective-Correct-and-Incorrect1-300x187See how that works? In the top diagram, the adjectives stylish and spacious modify loft apartment. In the bottom diagram, the adjectives (and so-called adjectives) stylish, spacious, and loft modify the apartment. Of course, loft is not an adjective, at least in the sense that it appears in that second diagram. That’s why it should not be treated like the other two adjectives. It functions as part of the noun, and by virtue of belonging to the noun, it receives the description of the other two adjectives.

Here is one more example:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing ice cubes.

This sentence says:

The ice cubes were numbing and refreshing.

It does not say:

The cubes were numbing, refreshing, and ice.

Also, if ice should be one of the comma-separated adjectives, we can remove it and the sentence will still make sense. Let’s try it:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing cubes.

If we remove all three comma-separated adjectives, we are left with this:

Jack chewed on some cubes.

Personally, I enjoy chewing on ice cubes, but not on cubes in general. Rubik’s Cubes are fun to solve (or to try to solve), but I prefer not to chew on them. (However, many dogs and toddlers would passionately disagree with me on this matter.) So, unless we want our readers to think Jack is a canine (or that he is incredibly eccentric), we should specify that these things he is chewing on are not merely cubes, but that they are ice cubes. In this sentence, the idea of a cube should not be separated from the adjective ice. By placing a comma between ice and the other two adjectives, the writer would erroneously group ice with that series of comma-combined adjectives, and not with the noun, cube. That would be a bad move, unless the writer was discussing a dog named Jack chewing on cubes that are defined by the adjective ice.

(But really–who names their dog Jack? Whatever happened to Spot or Fido? And what on earth does it mean for the cubes to be ice? Maybe it will catch on as a new slang word: “Yeah, I’m tellin’ ya: these cubes are ice, man. You gotta try some 0′ these if you wanna be ice.”)

To recap, here are our rules for commas and adjectives:

1. If and can go between two adjectives without disrupting the meaning of a sentence, you can place a comma there (in place of and).

2. If the adjective is an integral part of the noun, and if removing it would cause the noun not to make sense alone, then you should not separate it from another adjective with a comma. It should be considered part of the noun, which means that the adjective—along with the noun—is modified by the other adjectives.

3. If the adjective describes the noun but is not integral to the noun’s meaning, you should separate that adjective from the other non-integral adjectives with a comma.

Coming up: Commas and Conjunctions

Commas serve many purposes in sentences. One of the most frequent (and useful) comma functions is that commas work along with coordinating conjunctions to combine two sentences into one. To learn more about this useful comma function, click the link below:

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).


Comma Function: Other Comma Separations

In addition to separating items in lists, commas separate other things. For example, commas separate elements within a date, specifically the day of the month and the year:

Christopher Altman’s birthday is November 18, 1977.

Do you hear the pause between “18” and “1977”? Do you hear the slight change in pitch? That single comma creates both of those effects. Comma functions often overlap in this way.

I should also mention that November 18 is my actual birthday. Mark it on your calendar and send me a present when that date rolls around. And when you send me that computer or flat-screen TV (okay, okay–I’ll settle for a good book!), make sure to note that I live in Syracuse, NY—and don’t forget that comma between city and state.

Commas Make Long Numerical Expressions Easy to Read

Commas also serve an important but often under appreciated function in writing large numbers: they separate numbers into sets of three digits to help the reader differentiate between large number groups like millions, billions, trillions, and so on. Here is an example of a number without commas:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40927943.00.

Ugh. That’s hard to read. Now, try this one:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40,927,943.00

Unless you are very good with numbers, I expect you had a great deal of trouble figuring out if that first number was in the 40 millions or the 400 millions. In fact, I’ll wager that many readers attempting to identify that comma-less number would identify it by mentally grouping the numbers, from right to left, into sets of three. The comma does that for the reader, allowing her to know the identity of large numbers, at a glance. Yet again—even with numerical expressions—the comma functions to serve our readers. (Note: a space does not follow a comma within a number.)

As a courtesy to our readers, we should apply this rule even to easy-to-read four-digit numbers:

In November, my delighted readers are going to send me that flat-screen television–one that costs over $6,000.00!

(Why do I get the feeling that I’m far more likely to find a 6,000-page book in my mailbox in November?)

Next Up: When Commas Collide

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses, commas are useful, indeed essential, to clear, effective writing, another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

Did you find the previous sentence confusing? I’ll bet you did. Here’s why: comma confusion. All of the commas that appear in that sentence are serving legitimate comma functions. The issue is that those functions are colliding, causing the reader to become confused between the different commas and their separations.

Here is a revised version of that sentence:

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses; commas are useful—indeed essential—to clear, effective writing: another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

(Much easier to read, isn’t it?)

Want to learn more? The next article explores comma confusion and ways to avoid it. Check it out by clicking the link below. . . .

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 Function: Commas Separate Things

Before examining the final comma function, let’s review the running list of essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set things off from the main line of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

I saved the most essential comma function for last. Here it is, in all of its grand complexity:

Commas separate things.

In previous articles, we have explored how commas separate modifying elements (words, phrases, and clauses) from the main line of a sentence. In a very general sense, when I say, “Commas separate things,” I could mean that such separations include the divisions between those modifying elements. With functions 1 and 3 in mind, I could mean that commas separate things (like modifying elements) by representing slight pauses and drops in pitch. In this general sense, the notion that “commas separate things” serves as the all-encompassing comma function.

In this article, though, I intend this rule in a very specific sense. With that in mind, I will modify the rule a bit:

Commas separate items to show that they are to be considered as individual things.

The most frequent expression of this comma function is the separation of items within lists.

Commas Separate Items in Lists

This function applies when we use commas to separate items in a list (also called “items in a series”). Consider the example below:

The series on apostrophes will explore possessives, contractions, and s-ending nouns.

Notice the commas in the sentence above. They act as visual guides to the reader, to express the notion that the three items are separate and distinct from one another but that they are still connected in the sense that they are all explored in the series on apostrophes. (Paradoxically, the comma combines things, even as it divides them.) If the sentence is spoken, those commas become pauses that allow the listener to hear the separations.

But are these commas necessary? After all, the reader could get by without the aid of those commas in determining that the items are separate. Here is the sentence, without the commas:

The series on apostrophes explores possessives contractions and s-ending nouns.

Even if we can perceive these separations without the help of dividing commas (and most readers can), this second sentence requires more thinking on the part of the reader—but it’s not the kind of thinking we want readers to do. It makes the reader do a double-take. Sure, the reader can get by. However, getting by is most assuredly not what we want for our readers. We want to serve our readers with prose that guides them smoothly and seamlessly through our ideas and assertions. If readers do not feel well served, they will turn away from our writing and find something better to read. And why shouldn’t they? (Well, that’s the last thing we want, so we’d better use those commas!)

Although I discuss them here as an element that writers use to serve readers, such dividing commas are not merely a matter of preference. The use of dividing commas is a set-in-stone writing practice, but one that exists for good reason: clear communication.

In some cases, these separating commas are absolutely necessary to the meaning of sentences. In such situations, the reader cannot even manage get by in understanding the prose’s essential message. For example, consider this sentence:

I enjoy writing music and poetry.

What am I saying here? Am I saying that I enjoy three acts (writing, music, and poetry), or that I enjoy two acts (writing music and [reading] poetry)? There is yet a third possibility: I could be saying that I enjoy writing both music and poetry.

Which of these three messages do I intend? Without the aid of commas, there is no way to know for sure. With no clarifying context, the reader has no way of knowing for sure what this sentence states. She is left with three possibilities, each of which makes sense in its own way. As she continues to read, she can only ponder which possibility she is reading about in later sentences and paragraphs. (Think about that: the lack of commas causes harm not only in the example sentence, but also in the sentences and paragraphs that follow.) If she’s lucky, the context will let her know the situation–but, chances are, the frustrated reader will be left in the dark, if only for a time. What reader wants that? You guessed it–no reader! With that point in mind, it’s our job as writers to get that sentence right the first time.

Should we put the comma before and in lists?

You may have noticed that I include the comma before and in a list of three or more items. For example, look at the sentence below, and notice that I place the final comma before and. I have put the comma in red font for your convenience:

The Three Cs of good writing are consciousness, caring, and consideration.

This particular comma placement goes by several names, the most prominent terms being “the Oxford comma” and “the serial comma.” Some writers argue that we should include that pre-and comma in lists, while others think it should not appear there. I explore this matter in an upcoming article, “The (Optional?) Oxford Comma.” To skip to that article on the Oxford comma, click here.

Next Up: Other Comma Separations

Commas serve even more functions as separators. We will explore some of these functions in the next article.

Here’s the link:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces 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 Function: Commas Show a Slight Drop in Pitch

In addition to showing pauses, commas can represent slight drops in pitch. On rare occasions, commas serve this purpose even when there is no pause.

Here is a good example:

You are going to see that new Batman movie? I want to go, too.

The comma in the sentence above does not direct the reader to pause before too. Most people, I expect, would not read the sentence aloud this way:

I want to go [pause] too.

So if it doesn’t create a pause, what exactly does that comma do? Read the sentence aloud. Actually vocalize it—and when you do so, read it with meaning. Make sure to play the part: imagine that you are the would-be moviegoer, and that you sincerely want to catch that new blockbuster flick. Notice that there is a change in intonation when speaking the adverb too.

The comma shows this change, regardless of whether there is a pause. Most often though, commas show both a slight pause and a slight change in pitch or tone.

In effect, the sentence reads this way:

I want to go too.

Knowing this dual function of commas is a useful tool for composing natural, readable prose.

Next Up: Commas Separate Things

Here’s our running list of essential comma functions:

1. Commas show pauses within sentences (the comma rule of thumb).

2. Commas set off nonessential parts from the main syntax of a sentence.

3. Commas represent a slight drop in pitch (discussed in this article).

There is one more essential function of commas left to explore, but it takes several forms:

Commas separate things.

In a very general sense, this is the most essential comma function, since it covers the three functions we have discussed thus far in these explorations of the comma. However, when I say, “Commas separate things,” I am referring here to smaller divisions: separations between items in lists.

To view that article, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces 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 Function: Commas Set Off Introducing and Concluding Elements

In the previous article, we explored how commas set off interrupting phrases. Commas are also used to set off phrases and dependent clauses from the complete-sentence part (independent clause) of the larger sentence.

Here is an example. Notice that there is only one comma. Consider why that is the case.

Recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

Think again about the main line of the sentence. Split the sentence in half, with the comma as the dividing wedge in the middle. We are left with these two parts:

1. Recognizing the comma’s complexity

2. Many new writers are afraid to use it

Which of these parts, if written or spoken alone, is a complete statement? If you aren’t sure, read each aloud, and imagine speaking it to someone.

Number 2 is the complete sentence. To show that Number 1 (which English teachers might call a “dependent clause”) is an unnecessary but enhancing appendage, we set it off from the main sentence with a comma. If it had occurred mid-sentence, that clause would have commas on both sides, like this:

Many new writers, recognizing the comma’s complexity, are afraid to use it.

Now, you may have noticed that the mid-sentence interrupter uses two commas, while the introductory clause uses only one comma. In the introductory example, the dependent clause occurs at the beginning of the sentence, so there is no need to have a comma at the beginning of the clause. Think about it: on that side, there is nothing to set the clause off from; all that’s there is the empty space between sentences. Just for the sake of exploration, let’s look at the clause with both commas in place:

,recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

If we make that unneeded comma invisible, we have our original sentence:

Recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

As the sentences above demonstrate, a comma that appears to divide a sentence into two parts actually fulfills the same function as the two commas used to set off a mid-sentence interrupter. The difference is that we do not show the additional comma. The period (or other end punctuation) of the adjacent sentence makes that division, so it covers for the comma.

See how that works?

Here are a few additional examples. To show the process of rewriting these sentences, I present three steps for each: (1) the original mid-sentence interrupting clause, (2) the transitional clause-sentence form, with the extra comma left visible, and (3) the completed clause-sentence (or sentence-clause) form, with the extra comma omitted.

Mid-Sentence Interrupting Clause -> Introducing Clause

Original: Commas, although they involve many rules, make perfect sense.

Step 1: ,although they involve many rules, commas make perfect sense.

Step 2: Although they involve many rules, commas make perfect sense.

Mid-Sentence Interrupting Clause -> Concluding Clause

Original: Commas, although they involve many rules, make perfect sense.

Step 1: Commas make perfect sense, although they involve many rules,

Step 2: Commas make perfect sense, although they involve many rules.

So, whether we’re using two commas to set off an interrupting phrase, or using a single comma to set off an introductory clause, we are essentially doing the same thing: setting off an enhancing non-sentence phrase/clause from the core message of the sentence. While commas involve many rules, I hope that this article has helped simplify those rules for you.

Next Up: Commas Change Intonation

Here is our ongoing list of comma functions:

1. Commas show pauses (the comma rule of thumb).

2. Commas set off modifying parts from the main sentence:

A. Introductions

B. Interruptions

C. Conclusions

Believe it or not, commas serve even more purposes, but those additional purposes are minor compared with the functions we have explored. Still, they are worth examining, so I will do so in upcoming articles.

One such function is that commas can show a change in how we read and intone words. If you want to know more, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces 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).