Playing fast and loose with comma rules

Published 8:24 am Thursday, May 3, 2018

Several weeks ago I was doing some writing for fun. When I finished what I was working on, I naturally read back over it to make sure everything made sense and I wasn’t missing or misspelling any words. What I actually discovered was, in my haste to get my thoughts on paper—or more technically, screen—I had somehow added in a whole bunch of useless, unnecessary commas everywhere.

“I’m playing fast and loose with comma rules tonight!” I jokingly told myself before fixing the errors.

The rules for using that common punctuation mark can be a bit overwhelming at times if you haven’t memorized all the possible grammatical scenarios that require commas. I know I remember many comma usage rules from years of English classes, but even I get fuzzy on the details sometimes.

Most of the time they’re good for clarity purposes or for emphasizing a pause that would be there if you were speaking out loud. If you miss a comma or two while writing, it’s usually not going to be too noticeable to cause a problem. So people probably won’t complain as much about comma misuse than they do for other grammatical errors.

But, of course, the comma is not without its own controversy either. For example, I love the Oxford comma.

If you’re unfamiliar with that particular bit of grammar, let me briefly explain. The Oxford comma (also known as the more blandly-named serial comma) is the final comma used in a list of three or more items. So if you are naming your favorite foods, you’d add in a comma right before the “and whatever” at the end of the list.

My English teachers in school always advocated the use of that final comma, but it’s certainly not a “required” grammar rule. The grammar police are not going to barge in, sirens blaring, if you don’t include an Oxford comma. (Truthfully, the grammar police would probably be too busy trying to crackdown on the “they’re, their, there” confusion. It’s a much bigger problem our society faces.)

But I’ve always liked the Oxford comma for the clarity it provides. Without that last comma, people can misinterpret the last two items in the list differently than intended. An example I saw on Grammarly’s website used this sentence: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

“Without the Oxford comma,” the website says, “the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

Well, my parents most certainly are not Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty, and they would probably be offended by the implication! (Sorry Mom and Pops!) So using the Oxford comma is a nice way to avoid confusion… and potential awkwardness when talking to your parents.

But Oxford commas aside, there are some people out there who might argue we don’t even need any commas at all. They’re certainly not used as much in informal writing like texts and tweets anymore. If I wrote a sentence without commas it might make you cringe a bit but you could figure out the meaning without too much difficulty. (I’d normally put two commas in the previous sentence, but I purposely left them out to make the point.)

While all the grammar rules may be annoying sometimes, I still like commas. Sometimes I accidentally leave them out and sometimes I add way too many, but I feel like they provide a bit of flourish to my writing. Unlike periods and question marks which have very specific uses, you can play around with a comma.

Language is constantly evolving, so playing fast and loose with the rules isn’t too bad sometimes. Commas are like a sprinkle of spice which makes writing much more fun.

Holly Taylor is a staff writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or by phone at 252-332-7206.