Category Archives: Editing

The Comma Sutra – Position One

The “Comma Sutra” posts were by far the most popular on my first blog, so I thought I’d repeat this one originally posted on September 1, 2012.

CommaSutraThe comma so perplexes me in writing that I think a whole book could be written on the topic. It is used in so many different ways and its usage is different depending on what you are writing and what you intend to say. I’ve gone from being a comma-abuser to a comma-avoider to everywhere in between.

Because of the complexity, I will concentrate on comma usage in a particular minute instance, and maybe one day, I’ll have it mastered. This week – the list.

I grew up hearing you always use a comma between the second to last item in a list with three or more items and the conjunction (“and” or “or”) appearing before the last item in the list (unless, of course, a semi-colon is appropriate which is a whole other topic). Then when I became a paralegal, I was told this was wrong – you should leave out that comma. And then I read somewhere you should use the comma when writing lists in fiction but you should leave them out when writing non-fiction. Even when reading a Harvard Business School case for a class, I noticed there were no commas between the last two items in lists in the text – “proving” the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction.

To solve this confusion, I turn to the “experts.” According to A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition, on page 58, by Diana Hacker, you should follow the advice I received in grade school of “use a comma between all items in a series of at least three, including the last two.” Hacker acknowledges the paralegal no-last-comma camp but indicates “most experts advise using [the comma] because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.”

According to The Associated Press AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2009 Edition, you “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series” which appears to consist of three similar items (p. 355). The Essentials of English, 6th Edition, by Vincent F. Hopper, Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith appear to agree with Diana Hacker though it does admit it is “not absolutely essential” (p. 114). The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, also agrees with the comma-always mantra (p. 88).

So what will the Wordsy Woman do? Well, unless someone asks me specifically to leave it out, I will insert a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” or “or” in my list of three items or more.

THEY’RE OVER THERE WITH THEIR WARES – The Triple Threat

Source: Kristian Bjornard, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/3331168376/
Source: Kristian Bjornard, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/3331168376/

One of the biggest writing errors you can make and one of the easiest to correct is the proper usage of the words they’re, there, and their. Even though I know how to use these words properly, mistakes still show up in my writing. Apparently my typing fingers have minds of their own…

An easy way to correct these mistakes in Microsoft Word is through a “Find” search. (In later Word versions, it’s on the “Home” tab under “Editing” – to the far right on my computer.) Search each of they’re, their, and there separately to double check if the correct word was used. If you can’t tell, try these tricks.

They’re is the contraction for they are so read the sentence substituting they are for they’re; if it sounds right, keep they’re. If it doesn’t, try there or their.

Their shows possession for the group they or them. If your sentence is describing something owned by they or them (like their wares), then their is correct.

There is a little bit trickier. According to Dictionary.com, there can mean “in or at that place; at that point in an action, speech, etc.; in that matter, particular, or respect; into or to that place; or used by way of calling attention to something or someone.” In my mind, there refers to a place or location but not necessarily a physical location. If the sentence isn’t talking about possession and they are doesn’t make sense, chances are you want there. To triple-check, decide if the Dictionary.com explanation applies.

Happy their, they’re, and there hunting!