Monster Monday: 3 Common Commas

Monster Monday continues our focus on the comma with 3 Common Commas.  If you learn nothing else about the comma, remember the foundational information of this lesson.

Alfred Smedburg’s 1912 “Bland tomtar och troll” / public domain image

Function 3: Links that Separate

3 Common Commas

Common Commas

The Common Commas are so-called because we encounter these uses more than any others.

The three uses fit these categories: Linking / Conjoining / Attributing.

Linking Commas

Linking commas are also known as serial commas. Serial relates to the word series, and a serial comma is used for items in a series (or list). The comma links or joins these items, one after another. The list must be three or more items. Two items will not have a comma.

Flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and yeast are necessary ingredients when making bread.

Note the position of the commas, after each item in the series except for the last which no longer needs to link another item in the list. Note the position of the conjunction and in relation to the comma: it comes after.

It’s always comma conjunction. It’s alphabetical: coM comes beforecoN.
PInterest image of Looney Tunes characters

Not only the animal characters (Subject 1) of Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, and Daffy Duck but also the human characters (Subject 2) of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Same, and the witch were on the losing side in the Bugs Bunny cartoon series.

This example shows the correlative conjunctions combining two subjects, each of which has three items in a series. Mark the listing (serial) comma which comes before the conjunction.

Oxford or Not?

For several years, people debated that the comma before the conjunction was a matter of personal style. This false belief developed in the late 1900s and early 2000s.

The comma before the conjunction has been variously known as the Oxford Comma or the Harvard Comma. The grammar world has a myth (one of its few) that this serial comma disappeared with the soldiers who went to fight in World War I. After Armistice and the young men’s return, the serial comma also returned.

Whether true or not, the myth and the argument about personal style was recently decided in a U.S. appeals court case. In the convoluted legalese of contracts, the lack of a comma can change the meaning of sentence.

Coverage by the The New York Times and other media outlets celebrated the win for truck drivers over a dairy company. Daniel Victor, for The NY Times on 16 March 2017[1], writes: “A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay . . . hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families, and foe: The dreaded—or totally necessary—Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.” He goes on to cite the specifics of the court case, the result of which meant thousands of dollars a year for the drivers in the class action.

Victor cites several more instances of court cases determined by the placement of the Oxford comma. He event quotes the Oxford University Press with “the last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity,” which is the whole point of clarity with commas.

What this means for you is that the comma before the conjunction—the serial or Oxford comma—is required for three + items in a series, whether that is a series of single words or phrases or sentences.

As a matter of style, you decide whether to use or omit the serial or Oxford comma. For clarity, always use it.

Stop Sign hiding behind a tree

And remember that punctuation is coding for clarity (instead of hiding the road sign behind a tree).

Conjoining Commas

We discussed commas that join sentences in the F3 section Type I Errors. Here’s the reminder:

When joining two sentences, you must use two things: a comma and a conjunction.

That’s it. The Conjoining Comma seems so simple. Why, then, do so many people mess it up?

Here are the two errors that result when you can’t identify the subjects and verbs of your own sentences.

Without a comma, you have a fused sentence.

Without a conjunction, you have a comma splice.

Attributing Commas

We’ve reached the 3rd of the 3 Common Commas. Attributing commas sound difficult; they’re not. Attribution is more of that arcane language that pretends to have a special key.

Attribution simply means telling who said what. That telling can be direct or indirect, just as we can have direct and indirect quotations (coming up in the Function 5: Special Marks).

Direct attribution clearly states who said the what. It also uses quotation marks and a comma to link what was said to who said it. Indirect attribution lacks quotation marks and the comma and will paraphrase the original statement, but who said what is still very clear.

DirAtt: “Shakespeare’s plays are the wheel of our lives,” Harold Bloom declares in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, “and teach us whether we are fools of time, or of love, or of fortune, or of our parents, or of ourselves.”

IndirAtt: In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom states that Shakespeare’s plays present the central driving force that guides every life, whether that force is time, love, wealth, outside authority, or inward instinct.

In the indirect attribution, notice the paraphrased words that avoid word-for-word quotation. See the lack of quotation marks and the use of the subordinate conjunction that. The indirect attribution requires a subordinate clause attached to the independent sentence.

In the direct attribution, first notice the quotation marks that separate the quotation from the speaker (writer) of the quotation. Also mark that the words inside the quotation marks create a complete sentence, and the words outside the quotation marks are a complete sentence—two independent sentences, which are stronger than one independent and one subordinate. In doing this, the commas of direct attribution work like the conjoining commas.

Also, please notice that we keep other marks of punctuation—commas and periods—inside the quotation marks.

Finally, pay attention in the quotation to the extra commas in the list, starting with time. Why do you think Bloom included extra commas?[2]

Wrapping Up

After I poured out so much information on conjunctions, you may have anticipated an equivalent number of words would be spilled for this post on the 3 Common Commas. Even with linking, conjoining, and attributing commas, we didn’t run on for reams. I apologize for disappointing you.

We’re not finished with the Common Commas. Continue on for the 6 Conventional Commas. These you see constantly but barely notice.


[2] That’s correct. He is avoiding any ambiguity. When doubt may occur, add in additional commas—while also avoiding too many commas. It’s a fine line, isn’t it?