Saturday, November 28, 2020

A Lecture on Commas

 “The time has come,” said Father, “to talk about you.” --Bullfrog Grows Up

“Today,” said Mother, “the time has come to talk about commas.” 

You may not be a grammar and punctuation nerd, but this is a serious matter that won't be resolved unless we all work together. If you can read and write, you can understand this.

Consider this fine sentence from a Facebook group called Forgotten Oregon, regarding animated GIFs in the comments.

They are distracting, annoying, and unnecessary.

One of the uses of commas is to streamline a series of similar words or phrases. Instead of repeating “and” all the time, we use commas instead and save the “and” for the final word or phrase.

Compare the above example with this: They are distracting and annoying and unnecessary.

See what I mean?

Another example:

Today I got up and I went on a walk and I lit the heater in the cabin and I made a pot of tea.


So we use commas to make a string of similar phrases.

Today I got up, went on a walk, lit the heater in the cabin, and made a pot of tea.

A series like this should be like a good round of hopscotch. You have a spot in front of the first square where you launch, then you smoothly hop hop hop, pick up the rock, and hop home.

In every sentence with a comma series, you need a launching word. You set your little tennie runners there and then take off into Square 1.

Also remember: every item that follows needs to be similar in shape, like the squares of a hopscotch game, and they all need to connect to that original launch word.

If you’re stepping off the hopscotch game, put an AND in there.

In the sentence about my morning, the place where you set your feet and begin is “I.” Every item connects back to “I.”

I got up

I went on a walk

I lit the heater in the cabin

I made a pot of tea.

Now, we take a deep breath before the bad news. A dreadful habit has entered our fair land. Writers begin a series properly, hop, hop--but then the last item veers to the left and goes wandering into the weeds.

Once you start seeing these, you find them everywhere, including the New York Times and Instagram posts from Queen Elizabeth. [Weep.] 


Very large surf is expected along the south Washington and Oregon beaches that could cause strong rip currents, dangerous sneaker waves, beach erosion, and move large logs.

We plant our feet on “could cause,” then we hop hop hop to:

Strong rip currents

Dangerous sneaker waves

Beach erosion

[so far so good]

Then we not only step on the line but stumble off the sidewalk and into the arborvitae bushes.

Move large logs? What?

“that could cause move large logs”??

The similar series ends with beach erosion, so you should put a comma and an “and” in front of it.

As I mentioned, even the New York Times messed this up.

He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example, military service, and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.

As it is, it would read, “. . . Beau’s . . . his own grief over his eldest son’s death.”

Stick an extra “and” in there, you fancy NYT editors. 

He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example AND military service and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.

Then we have a quilt magazine, on using Orvus paste to wash a quilt:

It’s inexpensive, safe, and lasts a long time.

You skipped some stitches there, quilt magazine. Try this: 

It’s inexpensive and safe and lasts a long time.

From, regarding asp caterpillars—

Use tape, tweezers, or scrape them off with the edge of a piece of cardboard.

You’re bouncing off of the word “use.” Use tape. Use tweezers. Use scrape them off with the edge. Arrrggg.

From, who ought to know better, describing classical homeschoolers--

“They are often memorizing speeches, dominating debates, and their parents hope to be raising the next generation of scholars, doctors, and lawyers.”

Please. There are only two items in the "are often" series. Put an "and" in between. Memorizing speeches and dominating debates. 

Then we have The Next Great Jane by K.L.Going, which is not some slapped-together self-published novel. Someone at Penguin should have caught this.

“True,” Kitty said, “but if that woman is going to compete with your mom’s fiancé, then she’d have to be rich, sophisticated, and have a better job than a Hollywood film director.

“She’d have to be have a better job than a Hollywood film director.” No no no.

This stuff is everywhere.

From a sewing site on Instagram:

Ambrosia is a veteran, a nurse and is fairly new to IG but has hit the ground running with it.

Just take out the second “is.” Easy peasy.—

As kids, Laura taught me how to ride the swings, draw rolling hills, and the ‘right’ way to properly eat string cheese.

This one comes close. “The right way” links back to “taught me.” However. The beginning words are actually “taught me how to.” 

Laura taught me how to the right way to properly eat string cheese.


As I mentioned, sadly, Queen Elizabeth got it wrong when she posted on the death of His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah of Kuwait.

He will be long remembered by all who work for regional stability, understanding between nations and between faiths, and for the humanitarian cause.

Oh dear Queen. All you had to do was omit that final “for.”

From a letter in Threads magazine—

I love your magazine, articles, podcast and have been reading Threads since the first issue.

All right, class. What is our beginning word?


What is in the series?

Magazine, articles, podcast.

NOT “have been reading . . .”

Pop an “and” in there before “podcast” and we’re good to go.

Marina.von.koenig on Instagram , writing about quarter scale blocks.

It saves time, paper, and is fun.

No, Marina. Try this:

It saves time and paper and is fun.

You wouldn't say, "It saves is fun."

Believe me, dear readers, there are many many more examples in my files. Surely you've caught the drift of this important lesson, and now you can be irritated every day along with me. 

We close today’s lesson with a text from our fine son Ben, who recently sent a link to an interesting article and who tries to let me know when he goes hiking and when he returns.

And who brought joy to his mother’s heart with this properly-done series:

Yes, I did make it back safely. I did not in fact send that article while lying in a ravine with a broken ankle, severe internal bleeding, and a coyote gnawing on my leg.

See? You can be like Ben, bringing joy to your grammar-nerd family and friends.

Said Mother hopefully. 

- * - *-

P.S.--A few corrections and clarifications from readers. I am always learning!
1. Mary Hake pointed out that properly-done [four paragraphs up] isn't properly done. "Adverbs (-ly) words cannot be hyphenated and form a compound adjective," she says.
2. Rebekah Nafziger says, ". . . it is called parallelism. You can't have two verbs in a series and then a noun or prepositional phrase. . . I was a copy editor and proofreader for Multnomah Publishers before they sold in 2007."
[I knew the concept but had forgotten the name.]
3. An anonymous commenter pointed out that this example: 
Ambrosia is a veteran, a nurse and is fairly new to IG but has hit the ground running with it violates the parallelism principle, even with my corrections. Noun, noun, adjective. Oops.


  1. and adverbs (-ly) words cannot be hyphenated and form a compound adjective.

    1. I'm not sure I understand. You mean like a badly-written sentence?

    2. Dorcas, I think she is referring to your hyphenated word “properly-done.”

  2. I'm sympathetic to the Queen. She was undoubtedly distracted by the effort of getting the Sheikh's name right, and an extra "for" is a less serious breach of protocol than an extra "Al" would have been.

    1. And who knows if the good Queen actually typed those words herself or if someone did it for her . . .

  3. It has been YEARS since I've encountered a good, stern lesson on a point of grammar about which I have not given a lot of thought. And I consider myself one of those annoying grammar nerds. Of course, you're entirely correct here. I shall now endeavor to absorb this lesson and add it to my grammar nerd catalog. :)

    1. Even grammar nerds can always learn something new. I added some corrections to my post.

    2. These days, people can't even figure out where and how to use apostrophes (one of MY pet peeves.) AND they aggressively don't care that they don't know how to spell or put together a proper sentence. So focusing on the copy editors' finer points of grammar seems sadly futile. But I guess copy editors must be wandering around the internet playing grammar police, because, judging from some of the online articles I read, they certainly aren't gainfully employed any more...

    3. Lisa, I love your line about copy editors wandering around the internet because they aren't gainfully employed. SO TRUE. Even the print media aren't edited well. It's sad.

    4. About apostrophes-In our area there is a fruit company whose name appears, at least on some signs and boxes, as Hess Brother's Fruit Company. How many brothers are there? :-) Sarah

  4. In (home)school I remember obsessing over the essays I wrote because I didn't want to get a single edit or correction from my mom's red pen. I can be a grammar and punctuation nerd, but I'm sure I wouldn't have caught some of these examples. Now I need to go check a recent comment I posted and see if I've transgressed in this area.😅
    It drives me especially crazy to find writing errors on professional sites. And it's driving me crazy that my daughter only uses the word "may" instead of "can". We're working on this.

    1. I love how proper English gets passed on in your family.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed this. I appreciate the fact that you concentrated on one particular comma gripe. This way, it's easier for us to take in and also leaves you with plenty of fodder for more comma posts. :)

    1. Indeed. There is much more that could be said about commas.

  6. And some comma police would say the commas in a list always replace "and." When you use "and" before the last item, you omit the comma at that spot. I think that rule probably varies depending on which rule book you read. And it also probably varies depending on the content of the list. Sometimes it seems more necessary in addition to the "and" than it does other times. - CRS