Ever felt guilty for using a comma before ‘and’? We have. Who can forget the mantra of English teachers up and down the country: you don’t need a comma before ‘and’, they would say. Well guess what. They were wrong.
It’s not just English teachers either. A comma before ‘and’ is often taken out by sub-editors of newspapers, who think it’s unnecessary. And to be fair, it often is. But not always. It’s another one of those English language myths, like starting a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’, or splitting an infinitive.
Putting a comma before ‘and’ is perfectly acceptable if it helps clarify the meaning of the sentence. It even has its own name – the ‘Oxford comma’ – due to its consistent use by Oxford University Press. And not only its own name, its own darn song: ‘Oxford Comma’, by trendy American songsters Vampire Weekend….
What the song probably doesn’t make clear is that the Oxford comma is useful to add clarity in complicated lists, or lists where some of the elements themselves contain the word ‘and’. For example:
Rebecca was proud of her new cupcake recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.
Without the comma, you can’t be sure how many new recipes there are. Is it four or three? And if it’s three, is it peanut butter and choc chip, or choc chip and coconut? Or is it two flavours, the second being a tempting combination of peanut butter, choc chip and coconut?
But put the comma in and all becomes clear:
Rebecca was proud of her new cupcake recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip, and coconut.
So, next time you’re tempted to insert a comma before ‘and’, just sing-a-long with Vampire Weekend and go for it.
Here at Wordsworks copywriting agency, we’re big readers. Newspapers, books, comics, cornflake packets, whatever you’ve got. And every so often, there’s a piece of writing that reminds us why we love what we do.
It’s here. And it succinctly describes the beautifully simple language used by uber-brand Apple.
The article also happens to fit neatly with our copywriting philosophy: that concise and clear is very powerful. To write words that are effortless to read.
Apple has shown consistently, and ruthlessly, that good language can go hand in hand with good profits.
Commas are a really useful writing tool. You could compare them to taking a breath when writing a sentence. However, it’s easy to go over the top and use them incorrectly.
One of the worst offenders is the comma splice. Put simply, a comma splice occurs in sentence where a full stop or a connecting word should have been used instead.
Some examples of a comma splice:
The team had worked really hard today, it was time for a cup of coffee. My cat went missing last week, this morning it was on my bed.
There are many reasons to visit Greece, the beaches are lovely.
The two parts here could stand independently as two separate sentences, so a comma should not be used.
There are two ways to solve these splices. One is to use a connecting word (also known as a coordinator) to join the two independent sections. Coordinators are words like: and, but, or, yet and so.
The team had worked really hard today, so it was time for a cup of coffee. My cat went missing last week, but this morning it was on my bed.
There are many reasons to visit Greece, and the beaches are lovely.
The second solution is to be brave and close off each sentence with a full stop.
The team had worked really hard today. It was time for a cup of coffee. My cat went missing last week. This morning it was on my bed.
There are many reasons to visit Greece. The beaches are lovely.
Once you’re aware of this really common error, you’ll probably spot it everywhere. Time to get the red pen out.