As an editor and proofreader, the bane of my existence is the comma. Writers and editors have been annoying each other for years, on the question of where that comma really goes, on whether or not it’s needed at all, in any given piece.
It’s also a question I’ve put a lot of thought into, if only to give you an answer.
1. They go where you want them to
This is the crux of it, really. Writers like to put them wherever they want, wherever they pause, and that’s a perfectly fine thing to do. Remember though, your editor will likely want to remove a great deal of them, if you’re like me and you sprinkle them gratuitously throughout your writing.
But really, the rules on commas are basically that wherever you would like the reader to pause, or to breathe (in the case of poetry, for example), you should place a comma. So, if that’s where you’re putting them, then you’re probably in good shape.
2. They go in specific places, too
True, though they go between pauses, they also have specific grammatical meanings and placements. For instance, they always go after words/phrases like however, although, for instance, and anything of that nature (refer to the beginning of this sentence). They’re also sometimes placed between thoughts, so the reader doesn’t get confused on which words go together, on any given sentence. See how I did that? “So the reader doesn’t get confused on which words go together” could’ve easily been put on the end of that sentence, without confusing the meaning, but by surrounding it by commas and placing it in the middle of the sentence, it adds a nice flair and sounds more like spoken word. Of course, some editors will tell you that's not the right way to do it... but I'd say they're behind on the times.
3. The Oxford
Of course, this is the version of the comma that the most readers, writers, and editors struggle to come to terms with. If you ask me, the Oxford comma has no reason to be left out.
If you don’t know what it is, the Oxford comma is the one after “writers,” two sentences before this one. It’s the one that newspapers decided to cut from print, back in the day of the typewriter, when every character took up the same amount of space. They cut out this particular comma, simply to save on ink and paper space, and they figured it wouldn't make a huge difference in the long run. But now that we use computers, now that a comma is a tiny little mark that’s tucked onto the end of a word and barely takes up any space at all, there’s no reason to cut it.
If you meet an editor who wants you to remove them, refer them to me. If you meet a writer who wants them removed, also refer them to me. Why? Because they’re wrong.
The thing is, with grammar rules in general, there are no rules. English is a living language, one that changes every single day in which it’s spoken. A few fuddy-duddies sitting around a desk cannot decide for us, what English is going to look like.
Remember, they just recently decided that we don’t need the hyphen in email, and that internet no longer needs to be capitalized. I haven’t done either of those things in years.
Those fuddy-duddies are behind on the times, they’re old men stuck in their old ways and old thoughts. No reason to let them tell us what we can and cannot do with our language.
But please, don’t get me started on the youngins who want to shorten though to tho and through to thru. I can’t. I just… can’t.
Associate Editor, etc.