Battle over comma a matter of style

Blue comma on white backgroundAh, the comma. That little curlicue that sweeps off to the right and slightly underneath a word, forcing the reader or speaker to pause. It’s a powerful piece of punctuation, and one that sparks endless debate.

Stephanie – a close friend and former journalistic coworker who is now a university professor – recently edited web copy for me. Most of her edits were spot-on, as usual. However, she suggested, as most academians do, that I add a comma before the word “too” at the end of a couple of sentences.

I demurred.  My primary audience isn’t students and teachers.

Only in academia will writers lose points for refusing to use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence, or before and after if it’s used inside the sentence. Outside of academia, I consider the before-too-comma superfluous, except to add emphasis or to emphasize a change of thought.

The Chicago Manual of Style agrees (at least on the change of thought):

“A comma can do some work in making the meaning of a sentence clear, but to claim two different meanings for I like apples and bananas too with and without a comma before too puts too much pressure on the comma. Out of context, neither version would be perfectly clear. To make the different meanings more apparent, short of additional context, you’d have to be more explicit:

“I too like apples and bananas.
“I like not only apples but bananas too.

“Use commas with too only when you want to emphasize an abrupt change of thought:

“He didn’t know at first what hit him, but then, too, he hadn’t ever walked in a field strewn with garden rakes.”

Having spent much of my professional writing life as a journalist, I take exception to punctuation and verbiage that wastes space. While much journalism is produced online these days, in the days of print the “news hole” was a precious commodity. You can fill up 12 to 15 inches of news copy very easily. Writing to space forces you to be frugal. I don’t use the word “that” unless dropping it would make the sentence unclear. I never use “in order to.” “To” will suffice. Although punctuation doesn’t take up much space, it does add up. So journalists drop punctuation that fills only a formal need.

For example, formal writing dictates that in a series of three or more elements, the writer must use a comma after every element that precedes the conjunction at the end. This is known as the serial or Oxford comma.

“I bought apples, oranges, and pears at the store.”

Both the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style say so.

But not the Associated Press. AP style dictates that, in most cases, in a series of three or more, you punt Oxford off the page.

“I bought apples, oranges and pears at the store.”

The exceptions:

“Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

“Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.”

The basic premise is: If it makes the sentence clearer, then use it. If not, it’s superfluous.

While I haven’t been a journalist for more than 10 years, much of the writing I still produce is submitted to the media. Therefore, I continue to mostly follow AP style, the most common, yet not exclusive, stylebook for the media. I have written for publications that follow the Chicago Manual of Style and, if I were editing a paper for a student, I would use the academic style I learned in grade school.

In professional writing, one must not only know one’s audience, but their stylebook too.

Or would you prefer, too?

Perhaps you would prefer Victor Borge:


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. It’s no wonder my beginning news writing students get so confused over the comma, after having spent years writing English term papers! I know they think I’m crazy to be concerned about such a seemingly little thing as a comma, but as we both know, punctuation is powerful. Having said that, I hope I didn’t use too many commas in this post.

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  2. […] Battle over comma a matter of style (tompfeifer.wordpress.com) […]

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