The Comma Conversation
- On March 31, 2015
“I spent a lot of time in his office, talking commas,” recalled John McPhee in an interview with the Paris Review. McPhee was describing what it was like to work with William Shawn, the illustrious former editor of The New Yorker magazine. “He explained everything with absolute patience, going through seventeen thousand words, a comma at a time,” McPhee said.
“At one point, I said, ‘Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it?’”
Mr. Shawn replied, “It takes as long as it takes.”
Creating comma-correct copy is difficult, and I know you don’t have “as long as it takes” to always come up with it, so I’m giving you excerpts from The Associated Press Stylebook, which most companies follow, to guide you through the most common uses you’ll have for commas in everyday business writing.
In a series: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but don’t put a comma before the final conjunction in a simple series (and and or are the most frequently used conjunctions). Simple is the operative word here, because AP style says to include that final comma—it’s called the serial comma—when an item in the series includes a conjunction or the series is made up of a complex series of phrases.
AP does not define what it means by complex, so the rule is open to interpretation. My advice, which mirrors that of many usage authorities, is to insert the final comma if there’s any possibility your reader could be confused. (Punctuation is meant to bolster clarity.) Here are some examples to illustrate the different scenarios:
A simple series—no comma before the final and
- She opened a website, elaneforwynn.com, which urges her re-election as a co-founder, industry veteran and independent voice.
- GE continues to shed consumer finance businesses around the world, part of an effort to reduce its presence in banking amid investor pressure to focus on industrial operations like making jet engines, power turbines and CT scanners.
Note: Even the simplest-seeming series can be cause for confusion. You’ve likely come across absurd examples like the following sentences, which make the case for good judgment over guidelines.
- This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
- The country-and-Western singer was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.
A series in which the items are made up of a complex series of phrases—insert the serial comma
- The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper attitude.
A series in which one (or more) of the items includes a conjunction—insert the serial comma
- According to the study, companies are dangling signing bonuses and salaries that range from $188,000 to $1.2 million, offering perks like the ability work from home and generous time off, and promising larger salaries to buy more protection for porous systems.
One more note about series and commas before I move on to the next guideline: When one (or more) of the items in your series includes a comma, separate the items with a semicolon:
- The party last Sunday night began another ending: the public goodbye to the AMC series that turned Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks into stars; made skinny suits and retro cocktails cool again; and brought back “Zou Bisou” from cultural oblivion.
With nonessential clauses and nonessential phrases: Clauses and phrases are considered nonessential when they can be lifted from a sentence without changing the sentence’s meaning. That nonessential information gets set off by commas:
- None of Starbucks’s previous initiatives on social issues, from healthcare to gun rights, has met with as heated a response as its efforts on race.
- The phrase from healthcare to gun rights is interesting, but not essential to the sentence’s meaning.
- 3G Capital, a Brazilian private investment group that already owns a suite of America’s most prominent food and beverage brands, has struck a deal to take control of Kraft Foods.
- The sentence “3G Capital has struck a deal to take control of Kraft Foods” stands on its own. A Brazilian private investment group that already owns a suite of America’s most prominent food and beverage brands is a dependent clause that conveys extra information. (Clauses are made up of subjects and predicates; phrases are groups of related words.)
With introductory clauses and phrases: Use a comma when you introduce a sentence with phrases that start with words like if, when and with:
- If the pieces and votes fall into place, Denis Ten might compete in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
- When 3G took over Burger King, it sold the company jet, scrapped an annual $1 million party at an Italian villa and moved executives at the company’s Miami offices from mahogany suites to an open floor of cubicles.
- With 1.4 billion users, the social media site has become a vital source of traffic for publishers looking to reach an increasingly fragmented audience glued to smartphones.
Before the conjunctions and, but, for, or, nor and so when the conjunction links clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences:
- Creating comma-correct copy is difficult, and I know you don’t have “as long as it takes” to always come up with it, so I am so I’m giving you excerpts from The Associated Press Stylebook to guide you through the most common uses you’ll have for commas in everyday business writing.
- This sentence is made up of three clauses, each of which could stand on its own, which is why I have commas before the conjunctions and and so.
With direct quotes—whether you put the quote or the person who said it first:
- “An issue as tough as racial and ethnic inequality requires risk-taking and tough-minded action,” Mr. Schultz said in his letter to employees on Sunday.
- Shawn replied, “It takes as long as it takes.”
With equal adjectives: Use a comma to separate a series of adjectives equal in rank. How do you know if they’re equal? If you can replace the comma with the word and without changing the sense of what you’re saying, the adjectives are equal:
- His innovative, creative talents have played a key role in our recent account wins.