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Use your comma sense

Use your comma sense

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, salted caramel 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 salted caramel and choc chip, or choc chip and coconut? Or is it two flavours, the second being a tempting combination of salted caramel, choc chip and coconut?

But put the comma in and all becomes clear:

Rebecca was proud of her new cupcake recipes: blueberry, salted caramel 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.