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July 23, 2013 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Guys, I've got some questions about commas. Apparently everything I thought I knew is wrong? Help.

I'm kinda known as the Grammar Princess among my friends, which makes it doubly embarrassing that suddenly I'm so extremely confused about commas.

There are three issues, all of which I noticed this weekend when reading two new novels (both published in hardcover by mainstream American publishers) and the freshly copy-edited fiction manuscript of a friend of mine:

#1 The serial comma. I know what it is, and I was taught not to do it. (I'm American.) Yet there it was, in the two novels I just read. These weren't literary fiction, by the way. I'm talking paranormal romance and mystery. What gives?

#2 I don't know what this one's called, but the gist is commas with too. Like: "I'm going to go, too." "I love you, too." I'm seeing these both used without the comma. Has that suddenly fallen out of favor?

#3 Commas with a list of adjectives before a noun. Here are some examples: "Light crystalline blue eyes." "Long heated swimming pool." "Big blustering werewolves." Don't ALL of those require some commas strewn about?!?

I, am, so, confused.
posted by BlahLaLa to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
#1: Serial comma is basically a preference thing. Some style guides don't use it, some do. But its presence or absence is not a matter of grammar (and, from a personal style/readability perspective, holy crap do I prefer it).
posted by brainmouse at 10:03 AM on July 23, 2013 [21 favorites]


Yeah, I think the copy-editing on your friend's book might be a little suspect.

For #1, it always seems like either way is fine depending on which is clearer.

For #2, those all seem odd to me with commas. Maybe if there was some reason for the speaker to specifically pause at those points they'd be OK, but I don't think commas before "too" should be there as a matter of course.

Examples in #3 could go a number of ways depending on what's modifying what. You could certainly have eyes that are "light crystalline blue", if the light is modifying the crystalline, which is modifying the blue, but you could also have a comma just after the light, or after both the light and crystalline. Unless you want to describe the swimming pool as having been heated for a long period of time rather than being large in one dimension, I think you need a comma after long. I can't see how you can get away without a comma between big and blustering.
posted by LionIndex at 10:04 AM on July 23, 2013


Standard disclaimer I use in my work (I'm a technical editor for a government agency): There are no laws of English. The point of language is to communicate an idea from one person to another. If your writing does this, it is "correct"; everything else is preference.

1 -- It comes and goes, depending on the publisher's house style. It's definitely on the way back in U.S. English.

2 -- Ditto. That one's less contentious and often chalked up to personal style or a shorthand for emphasis. Think of the comma as a slight pause, to emphasize the word immediately before it.

3 -- The general rule is that if the order of the adjectives is important, you don't use a comma. You wouldn't say "crystalline blue light eyes," so no comma. Ditto "heated long swimming pool." I could go either way on "blustering big werewolves," but unless you were emphasizing their size, I'd use the comma in tha tone.
posted by Etrigan at 10:05 AM on July 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was the "King of Commas" in 7th grade so, you know, you've come to the right place.

Here's my take:

#1: Serial commas are a matter of style. I've always used them, but both of them are correct, I think.

#2: I don't think a comma is necessary there. I think the standard rule with commas is that you only use them when you can justify your comma use with a rule; I don't think there's any rule about using a comma there, so I'd drop it.

#3: Yes. Those require commas. Because, for example, in your "Long heated swimming pool" example, I don't know if the pool has a large linear dimension (i.e. it's long) or if the heat has been on for a while (i.e. it's "long heated").
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not editing to add: I didn't think of "long-heated" as a possibility, so yeah, LionIndex and Betelgeuse are right on that one: it should be "long, heated swimming pool."
posted by Etrigan at 10:08 AM on July 23, 2013


I know what it is, and I was taught not to do it. (I'm American.)

That's odd, as Wikipedia indicates the predominant U.S. trend is to favor the Oxford comma. I am not a punctuation prescriptivist, but I've never understood the argument against the Oxford comma; in certain situations it genuinely resolves ambiguity.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:08 AM on July 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


1. The only hard-and-fast rule about the serial comma is consistency. You can use it or not use it, but don't vacillate within the same document. There are fringe cases where it can clarify confusing constructions (e.g. to my parents, Ayn Rand and God/encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector) but I can't honestly say that I've ever encountered one in the wild.
posted by pullayup at 10:09 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am a freelance editor.

#1 Whether you use a serial comma is just a matter of what style you're following. Most American book publishers follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which does recommend serial commas. AP style is not to use them, so maybe that's what you were taught, especially if you have a journalism background.

#2 There has been a general shift away from commas before too at the end of a sentence, but again, it's just a matter of what style guide you follow. CMoS says the comma before too isn't necessary.

#3 This is a bit more complicated. Here's CMoS 5.90: "Coordinate adjectives should be separated by commas or by and ... But if one adjective modifies the noun and another adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun, the adjectives are not considered coordinate and should not be separated by a comma ... The most useful test is this: if and would fit between the two adjectives, a comma is necessary." So "Light crystalline blue eyes" is okay--you couldn't put and between those adjectives without it sounding funny. The other two should technically have commas, but I often see this rule slide in fiction.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 10:10 AM on July 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


please excuse any instances of muphry's law

1. A lot of publishers use Chicago style - one of the big style guides - which recommends the use of the serial comma. That's probably what this is. (The other big one is AP style, which recommends against it, but that's generally used more by journalists.)

2. Generally you only need a comma here if you're deliberately emphasizing the "too," which is usually awkward. (Citation, from Chicago style again.)

3. Some guides make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives, but I always found that needlessly confusing. I don't have an official citation on this, but of your examples: "light crystalline blue eyes" definitely gets zero commas ("light crystalline blue" is basically one unit here, like a Crayola color); "big blustering werewolves" also gets zero commas ("big" is one of those words that rarely takes a comma), "long heated swimming pool" is less clear cut, but it really doesn't need commas either.
posted by dekathelon at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2013


Also: copy editors aren't perfect, mainstream publishers screw up too, and comma issues are more likely to slip under editors' radar than straight-up typos. So just because you saw something in a Real Published Work doesn't necessarily mean anything.
posted by dekathelon at 10:19 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to be an editor for an Australian-based publisher. For books published in Australian market, the house style was no Oxford comma (unless needed for clarity); for American markets, it was Oxford comma all the way, even if leaving it out would not result in something like "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

#2 I don't know what this one's called, but the gist is commas with too. Like: "I'm going to go, too." "I love you, too." I'm seeing these both used without the comma. Has that suddenly fallen out of favor?

I was taught that those phrases take commas, but if my style guide said to leave them out, well, okay.

#3 Commas with a list of adjectives before a noun. Here are some examples: "Light crystalline blue eyes." "Long heated swimming pool." "Big blustering werewolves." Don't ALL of those require some commas strewn about?!?

I'd comma-fy those, but first I'd ask for a rewrite because ew.
posted by rtha at 10:22 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


#1: I use these, because I tend to write in a way that I think would sound natural when spoken. So I'd write "Raymond Chandler, Ursula LeGuin, and Italo Calvino" because I would pause after 'LeGuin' when speaking. But it's ok not to do that. I just prefer it.

#2 "I'm going to go too" doesn't read right to me. Sounds rushed. Again, commas indicate a pause and I'd pause before 'too' when saying that sentence.

#3 Similarly, I DON'T think I would pause when saying the examples you listed.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:24 AM on July 23, 2013


Remember that while many houses use AP or Chicago style, others develop their own in-house style guides. These style guides can be truly bizarre and counterintuitive and sometimes just flat-out stupid-wrong. But they are the House Style, and the copyeditors will follow them.

(I worked for one house that had to have annual House Style meetings, because the house rules were so fucking ridiculous that editors finally ended up ignoring them--the cognitive dissonance was too much. The annual meeting was required to bring us back in line, and back to printing text that made us look like idiots.)
posted by like_a_friend at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some guides make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives, but I always found that needlessly confusing. I don't have an official citation on this, ...

For what it's worth, here's what the Chicago manual says about multiple adjectives:
As a general rule, when a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by commas. Such adjectives, which are called coordinate adjectives, can also usually be reversed in order and still make sense. If, on the other hand, the adjectives are not coordinate—that is, if one or more of the adjectives is essential to (i.e., forms a unit with) the noun being modified—no commas are used.

She has a young, good-looking friend. (Her friend is young and good-looking.)

but

She has many young friends.
Applying this to your examples, you would probably have
  1. "light crystalline blue eyes" (the eyes do not have lightness, crystalline-ness, and blueness as independent traits)
  2. "long, heated swimming pool" (since the swimming pool is both long and heated)
  3. "big, blustering werewolves" (since the werewolves are both big and blustering)

posted by Johnny Assay at 10:34 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


As has been said by others, these are all matters of style and there is no right or wrong. That said, here are my opinions:

1) I prefer the serial comma but I get that others don't. There are a lot of possibilities. For instance try using a lot of "and"s: I like tacos and chocolate and beer and gin and Teen Wolf. Or try an alternate orthography: I like (tacos chocolate (beer gin) and Teen Wolf). By the way, I've never had a beer'n'gin but why not?

2) The comma here actually feels a bit old-fashioned. I can't quite put my finger on it but that's how I would have normally punctuated it but now it just feels a touch dated. In general I think we should avoid commas whenever possible. Or even when not possible. Down with commas!

3) This is the most interesting one because indeed you do not need commas there. Maybe that's another fashiony thing but not only do I see this construction more and more but I've started using it as well. Commas are supposed to aid in understanding, if intent is clear then you should consider leaving them out.

4) I don't use a comma in there either. I just write: Today is July 23, 2013 and it's fucking hot and humid, bitch sun. Or what I actually write now (even as an American): Today is 23 July 2013 and it's fucking humid and hot, bitch-assed sun.

5) Remember what I said about leaving out commas? It applies here as well: "I do wonder" thought John "if the sun really is to blame." But if I were to put in a comma I'd do it thusly (even as an American): "I do wonder", thought John "if the sun really is such a piece of shit."

6) Definitely! I say þe þorn is the future of typography! Use it and use it well, friends!
posted by bfootdav at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2013


for adjectives in front of nouns, if you can join them with and, use commas.

ex:
orange and black cat
orange, black cat

three big grey dogs

you would not say three and big and grey dogs

that's probably wrong in some way, but hope that helps for #3.
posted by angrycat at 10:54 AM on July 23, 2013


1) As a US-based editor, I find that the publishing houses I work for tend to use serial commas. Books in British style don't do this.

2) Technically correct to use a comma but I see it not used a lot these days--I agree with those above who say it's old-fashioned.

3) I think "light crystalline" modifies blue so you don't need a comma.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:27 AM on July 23, 2013




We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin - I've seen this as "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Also consider: "My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast." Bacon and eggs, or eggs and toast?

But sometimes nothing helps. Wikipedia gives us this bit from the NYT: "highlights of [Peter Ustinov's] global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector"

I was going to say something about werewolves being both big and blustering but Johnny Assay, angrycat, et al. covered it above. The eyes in particular, I second mlle valentine - I think light and crystalline describes the shade of blue rather than the eyes.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:29 PM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because, for example, in your "Long heated swimming pool" example, I don't know if the pool has a large linear dimension (i.e. it's long) or if the heat has been on for a while (i.e. it's "long heated").

If the pool has been heated for a long period of time, I believe it would be "long-heated".
posted by Thorzdad at 12:40 PM on July 23, 2013


Grammar Girl did two podcasts on comma use earlier this year:

Where Do I Use Commas?

Commma [sic] Splice

I don't 100% agree with her advice but for the most part I think it's good stuff.
posted by fuse theorem at 12:40 PM on July 23, 2013


In general, punctuate sentences the way you say them.
The difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses is worth noting:

"The lawn mower that is in the garage is broken" is restrictive. No commas. It suggests that you have more than one lawn mower and you are restricting your comment to the one in the garage. "Use the one in the shed" may be the next sentence. "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." is another restrictive example. You are not suggesting that all people shouldn't throw stones.

"The lawn mower, which is in the garage, is broken" is non-restrictive. It implies that you only have one lawn mower, and you parenthetically mention that it is in the garage. You can take out "which is in the garage" without changing the basic sense.

Note: "that" is a restrictive pronoun, whereas "which" is non-restrictive.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:04 PM on July 23, 2013


#3 is really interesting, actually. "Light crystalline blue eyes" should have no commas, because all those adjectives are describing one attribute of the eyes: color. "Long heated swimming pool" might have commas, because those adjectives are describing two different attributes of the pool.

Strings of adjectives almost always come in a particular order. According to this ESL site, they are:
1. Opinion
2. Size
3. Age
4. Shape
5. Color
6. Origin
7. Material
8. Purpose

Wikipedia's list is slightly different, lumping size & shape together and adding a category for articles and adverbs at the beginning. I find the ESL site's list is closer to what feels natural for me.

I was taught that if you follow this order, you don't need to put in commas, although you can if you want or if it avoids confusion. However, if you don't follow this order, you always need a comma. So "crazy old man" doesn't need a comma (opinion followed by age), but "old, crazy man" does.
posted by echo target at 2:12 PM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that in fiction and some creative non-fiction some authors choose to eradicate commas to create an unconsciously more breathless pacing in the reader's internalizing of the words. It's a different sense of "style" than any conventional "manual of style" suggests -- it's more of a dramatic, poetic intensification of the kind of voicing they want to effect.

To explain what I mean: For example in Ulysses, in the famous first line "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" -- the comma helps create a stately pace of prose that makes us feel Buck. A bit later, we hear of Buck's "blithe broadly smiling face" (no comma.) Less of a plump and stately pace there in the sudden smile. There might be other reasons for this case (i.e. point of view) but my point is that I think that as the expressive tenets of modernism have become more standard, more and more authors are trying to create a voiced pacing in the reader -- so in fiction, when I read "I love you too" i hear it as a rushed passionate rejoinder, and I hear "I love you, too" as a more careful agreement.
posted by third rail at 2:55 PM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Unless "crystalline" is a shade of blue I'm not aware of, I would read "light crystalline blue eyes" as meaning "light blue eyes that appear crystalline" or "crystalline eyes that are light blue in color." In either case, I think you may have two coordinate adjectives ("light" and "crystalline") modifying a (cumulative) noun phrase ("blue eyes"), so a comma is not inappropriate: "light, crystalline blue eyes" means something like "((light & crystalline) blue ) eyes." But I don't think any meaning is lost by omitting the comma, because I don't think the phrase is ambiguous without it. Disclaimer: Not a grammar or punctuation prescriptivist. Also not an expert.
posted by dilettanti at 3:29 PM on July 23, 2013


People have been known to come to blows over the Oxford comma.
posted by mr vino at 3:53 PM on July 23, 2013


dilettanti: Unless "crystalline" is a shade of blue I'm not aware of, I would read "light crystalline blue eyes" as meaning "light blue eyes that appear crystalline" or "crystalline eyes that are light blue in color."

I think I disagree. Crystalline is a descriptor of blue - think of the clear blue waters around a tropical island, the kind that makes your heart ache and your eyes hurt and your brain thirst for a fruity drink with a little umbrella in it. Mightn't you call that a light crystalline blue? Now think of eyes of that color.

Cystalline eyes makes me think of insects or jellyfish or something that crawled out from under a rock instead.

(It's much better for my blood pressure to nitpick over comma placement rather than think about disabled kids in Florida.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:49 PM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]



People have been known to come to blows over the Oxford comma.


People have died.
posted by Shoggoth at 6:12 AM on July 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


These answers were all incredibly helpful - I could have marked them all best. Thanks, friends. (That was correct comma usage, right?)
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:17 AM on July 24, 2013


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