Tag Archives: Elements of Style

Serial commas

serial commas meme, martha stewartCommas: those little morsels of goodness that few authors understand. In general, serial commas are used to resolve ambiguity. When we have a list in a sentence, not using commas can create some interesting situations.

Comma use is part of what we call ‘style:’

  1. Google says: “Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence fluency, and the writer’s voice — all contribute to the style of a piece of writing.” 
We use a style to ensure consistency in our phrasing and punctuation, and make it easier for the reader to enjoy the book. The books I use to help me with that are Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation.   In my opinion, as an avid reader, the style that always uses the serial comma is less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the legendary book dedication often attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as meaning that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. That is actually rather hilarious because Ayn Rand is famously atheist in her beliefs. (I’m not qualified to say whether or not God believes in Ayn Rand.)

Lets-eat-GrandmaHowever, a comma before and removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them. For example, in the following manner:

To God, Ayn Rand and my parents. Hemingway used and in place of commas in much of his work, and it was quite readable.

A famous example reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.  This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives.

Although Merle Haggard has been married five time, he was never married to either Kris Kristofferson or Robert Duvall,  and a serial comma would resolve that inaccuracy:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

chicago manual of styleI’ve seen people launch into rants  against serial commas, claiming that it’s too many and looks awful.

I’m just going to say that argument  is hogwash.

Who are your writing for, yourself or an unknown reader who may one day buy your book?

If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like.

But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader: consider what is going to make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying.

Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.





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Grandma’s Ferrari and Style

chicago manual of styleOh golly gee–it’s that time of year again. What do I use,  “that” or “which?”   And what the heck are those rules again? Good grief…where did I put that bookmark for the online Chicago Manual of Style….

What? Doesn’t everyone have a bookmark in their list of favorites so they can immediately access a FREE style manual when questions of  style arise? Good lord people–we aren’t talking shoes and handbags here! We’re talking RULES! Specifically, the rules fer writin’ and ropin’ in them thar clauses!

And always remember–for the indie author, free is good. If you don’t have the funds to buy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for the love of Dickens, use the internet, Tiny Tim!

Personally, I use both manuals.

The traditional approach to the question of “that versus which” is to use “that” with restrictive clauses and “which” with nonrestrictive clauses. While some writers seem to have abandoned the distinction entirely, no better rule has come along to replace the traditional rule. Moreover, the rule is easy to master.

But what, you ask, is a stinking restrictive clause and why do you need one?

799px-Handcuffs01_2003-06-021.   A restrictive clause is one that limits — or restricts –the identity of the subject in some way. When writing a restrictive clause, introduce it with the word “that” and no comma. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use “who” to introduce the clause.) This is where “that” goes:

Correct Restrictive Use:

The photograph that was hanging in the hotel lobby was stolen.

The use of “that” in this sentence is correct if the reader intends to single out the one photograph that was in the hotel lobby as the stolen photograph. However, if there were several photographs hanging in the lobby, this use would be incorrect, since it would mislead the reader into believing that there had been only one photograph in the hotel lobby. The restriction here tells us that the one photograph that had been hanging in the hotel lobby was stolen — not the photograph in the cocktail lounge, or the one in the guest library, or any of those in the restaurant.

MH9004387282.  Use “which” with nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause may tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define that subject. When writing a nonrestrictive clause, introduce it with “which” and insert commas around the clause. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use “who” to introduce the clause and insert commas around the clause.)

According to Wikipedia, the Fount of all Knowledge: non-restrictive clause is a clause in which a noun phrase that is used to avoid repetition (as the referent of an anaphor, meaning that it is substituted by another word but refers to the same noun) is determined by its antecedent where the dependent is peripheral (non-essential) in the secondary constituent, as opposed to a restrictive clause, where the dependent is central (essential) to its primary constituent. A non-restrictive clause does not identify the referent of its noun, but only provides information about it.

220px-Metropolitan_police_BMW_3_seriesRestrictive example:

The officer helped the civilians who had been shot.


The officer helped those civilians who had been shot.

In this example, there is no comma before “who”. Therefore, what follows is a restrictive clause (not all of the civilians had been shot).

Non-restrictive example:

The officer helped the civilians, who had been shot.

Here, there is a comma before “who”. Therefore, what follows is a non-restrictive clause. It changes the sentence to mean that all the civilians had been shot.[1]

Correct Nonrestrictive Use:

The photograph, which was hanging in the hotel lobby, was stolen.

Explanation: While this nonrestrictive use tells us that the photograph was hanging in the hotel lobby, it does not tell us which of the several photographs in the hotel lobby was the stolen photograph. It would be incorrect to use this nonrestrictive clause if there had been only one photograph in the hotel lobby, as the sentence leaves open the possibility that there were others.

  1. Combining Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses. One can provide both limiting and nonlimiting information about a subject in a single sentence. Consider the following.

Correct Use of Both Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses:

220px-Looking_across_lake_toward_mountains,_-Evening,_McDonald_Lake,_Glacier_National_Park,-_Montana.,_1933_-_1942_-_Ansel AdamsThe Ansel Adams photograph that was hanging in the hotel lobby, which was purchased in 1969 for $100,000, was stolen.

The restrictive clause beginning with “that” tells us that only one Ansel Adams photograph was hanging in the hotel lobby and that it was stolen. The nonrestrictive clause beginning with “which” tells us what the owner had paid for the photograph, but it does not tell us that the owner did not pay another $100,000 for another photograph in the same year. It does not limit the possibilities to the Ansel Adams photograph that was in the lobby.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses beginning with “Who.” When writing about human beings, we use “who” rather than “that” or “which” to introduce a clause telling us something about that human being. Since “who” is the only option, we distinguish between a restrictive use and a nonrestrictive use by the use of commas.


Ferrari_AssetResizeImageOld Mrs. Jasperson, who drives a Ferrari, is going through her second childhood.

Yes, I am a dreamer. Indies are lucky to be able to afford bus passes.

Anyway, that “who clause” is nonrestrictive because the information in the clause doesn’t restrict or limit the noun it modifies (Old Mrs. Jasperson.) The commas signify that the adjective clause provides added, but not essential, information. Use a pair of commas to set off words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence, as in these quotes:

Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Anthony Burgess said, “Literature is all, or mostly, about sex.”

But don’t use commas to set off words that directly affect the fundamental meaning of the sentence:

Samuel Johnson said, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

400px-CH_cow_2See? I do understand the principles, and when it comes to theory, I can talk clauses and quarks ’til the cows come home.

But truthfully folks, when I am in the zone, I just bash out the words and trust that my editors will not only rein me in when  I get too free with my commas, they will weed out all the extraneous “thats” and “whiches” that creep into every author’s raw manuscript.

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