Don't murder copy with too many commas
January 14, 2013
My mother, a first generation Italian-American, was a fantastic cook. All second generation Italian-Americans say that, and it is probably true. None of us had a better lasagna than our mamas made, and no one could make a better sauce than they, even though their sauces were not the same. My mother jealously guarded her recipes—committing none to paper—and never taught her daughter to cook. I suspect she thought I was too American to be a good cook, so my youthful cooking experiences were limited to boxed cake mixes. There are wonderful dishes that I have seen only on my mother’s and grandmother’s tables that are sadly lost to the past.
There’s not a lot that my mother shared, but she had one particular philosophy that is ingrained in my being: “you can never have too much food.” This does not refer to eating, but to cooking. Too much is always preferable to too little, and woe to the cook who does not prepare enough food to satisfy guests. When the meal is spaghetti (or—swoon—fusilli, a type of pasta frustratingly unavailable in the south), the cost of preparing too much food is negligible. Even now, an extra handful of pasta adds only about twenty-five cents to the cost of the meal (so why stop at one extra handful?).
Recently, I was copy-editing a few chapters for a man whose use of punctuation is not quite standard. I pointed out that he had a comma in the middle of a sentence that didn’t belong there (it separated the subject from the predicate); he made the corrections then told me he had thrown in a few extra commas. In response to the rolling of my eyes, he added “after all, you can never have too many commas, right?” I explained that punctuation is not pasta; one does not need more than enough to go around.
Most writers with comma complications seem to err on the side of too few, however, every so often we stumble upon a writer who shares the “when in doubt, throw one in” philosophy. The preferable philosophy, for any grammar-related uncertainty, is “when in doubt, look it up.” Rules regarding commas are easy to understand and are included in style books, books on grammar, and a variety of websites devoted to writing and correct language use.
“What about the Oxford (or serial) comma?” you may ask. The Oxford comma is the one that should appear before the conjunction in a list of three or more items (“Mary served tacos, enchiladas, and heartburn.” “Would you like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, or Old Grand-Dad?”). “Should” seems too strong a term, though, since the Oxford comma is considered optional by some “authorities” (the quotation marks surrounding “authorities” denote my disagreement with their opinion). For the sake of clarity, the Oxford comma serves a purpose.
Reviewing the rules of commas takes only a few minutes and never has negative results. You may learn that something your third grade teacher alleged is totally wrong—I’ve often been guilty of misplacing a comma in quotations that include questions or exclamations (“WTF?,” Jack asked. “OMG!,” Margie exclaimed. Both commas are unnecessary and incorrect, despite what I learned in grammar school.) You may even learn to properly use commas with dates and places.
Writing can be compared to crafting the perfect meal. Some things should go in, some things should be left out, and it’s best to avoid both surplus and shortage. If you need to look at the rules (or a recipe) to be successful—for your guests’ sake, take the time to do it. And, whatever you write, remember “commas are not capellini.”