Tag Archives: serial comma

#Amwriting: The Coordinating Conjunction

In grammar, a conjunction is a connection: a part of speech that connects words, phrases, or clauses.

What are coordinating conjunctions and why should you care? For one thing, conjunctions are like any other essential part of English grammar. They have a particular use, and when they are used correctly, they blend into the background.

The Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, says:

Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance. In English, the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the coordinators for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are not the only coordinating conjunctions; various others are used, including “and nor” (British), “but nor” (British), “or nor” (British), “neither” (“They don’t gamble; neither do they smoke”), “no more” (“They don’t gamble; no more do they smoke”), and “only” (“I would go, only I don’t have time”). Types of coordinating conjunctions include cumulative conjunctions, adversative conjunctions, alternative conjunctions, and illative conjunctions.

Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions in English and what they do:

For – presents rationale (“They do not gamble or smoke, for they are ascetics.”)

And – presents non-contrasting item(s) or idea(s) (“They gamble, and they smoke.”)

Nor – presents a non-contrasting negative idea (“They do not gamble, nor do they smoke.”)

But – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, but they don’t smoke.”)

Or – presents an alternative item or idea (“Every day they gamble, or they smoke.”)

Yet – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, yet they don’t smoke.”)

So – presents a consequence (“He gambled well last night, so he smoked a cigar to celebrate.”)

We use and, or, and but as connectors of words, phrases, clauses, or sentences of equal rank.

  • apples and oranges
  • apples or oranges
  • apples, but not oranges

In a sentence, we can use “and” and “or” to join strings of nouns or strings of verbs:

  • Apples and oranges and bananas (are tasty).
  • Wash and dry (the dishes).
  • Apples or bananas or oranges
  • Apples and oranges, but not bananas
  • I love cooking and my pets and my family.

I would prefer to use serial commas to connect my string rather than conjunctions:

  • Apples, bananas, or oranges
  • Apples, bananas, and oranges
  • I love cooking, my pets, and my family.

Yes, I said I would use a serial comma. I’ve seen people launch into rants against serial commas, claiming it’s too many and looks awful.

That argument is hogwash.

For whom are you writing? Are you writing only yourself or are you writing for 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. Using serial commas will 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.

But enough about the commas–let’s get back to conjunctions.

The word “but” is a little different from “and” or “or.”  It is a coordinating conjunction, and we use “but” to join two words:”

  • (I want you to) sing, but loudly.

“But” is also a connector that indicates contrast.

  • I like black but not white.

“But” can connect just about any kind of word or phrase that “and” and “or” can connect, with one difference: it can’t connect nouns in phrases.

  • Consider Betty and Judy (went shopping). We wouldn’t say Betty but Judy (went shopping).

However, “but” can connect noun phrases to other phrases:

  • Betty and Judy (went shopping) but I don’t know who drove.

When I speak, I have a habit of beginning my sentences with the conjunctions “and,” “but,” “because,” and “so.” Because these words are conjunctions, connector words, some people will say this is wrong.  I disagree with them, for this reason: in this case, these conjunctions are connecting ideas.

On page 257, The Chicago Manual of Style says this rule has “no historical or grammatical foundation.” The CMOS further points out that William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence freely began sentences with those four conjunctions.

These people were well educated, and we can assume they understood grammar as well as anyone. Consider the following sentence, written by Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

As he was a lawyer as well as a respected public speaker, we know Abe was a well-educated man.

Get It Write Online says:

“Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable. When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:

She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

In this example, using “and” after the period is wrong because the second “sentence” is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.

So, just like the ubiquitous (but often unnecessary) “comma before the word because” and the silly debate over the incredibly important serial comma, we will likely have this disagreement for many generations to come.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Conjunction (grammar),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conjunction_(grammar)&oldid=771179901  (accessed March 28, 2017).

Weird Coordinating Conjunctions: Yet, For, and So, © Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, July 10, 2014, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/weird-coordinating-conjunctions-yet-for-and-so, (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.

Starting Sentences with “And” or “But,” © 03/26/2001 Nancy Tuten,  Get It Write, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/032601startsentandbut.htm  (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

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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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Comatose Ambiguity

CommasThe Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend or require the use of the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma.

Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.

 

IN GENERAL, OXFORD COMMAS ARE INTENDED TO RESOLVE AMBIGUITY:

ambiguityThe style that consistently uses the Oxford comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the oft quoted, but (according to Snopes) mythological, book dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. 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 define them. For example, in the following manner:

 To God, Ayn Rand and my parents.

I have used both styles in my writing, but am leaning more and more toward the Oxford comma.

Another wonderful example, reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden, was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about country music legend, Merle Haggard:

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

Whoa!  Who knew that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives? An Oxford comma would eliminate this hilarious inaccuracy:

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

I usually argue for consistent use of the serial comma because:

  1. Use of the Oxford comma is consistent with conventional practice as suggested by the Chicago Manual of Style, which is my primary reference manual.
  2. It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better, so reading passages aloud will flow more easily. This is something to consider if you intend to have your work turned into an audiobook.
  3. Properly used, it resolves ambiguity.
  4. Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list, for example, when consistently included before the last item even when and or or is present.
  5. Its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists. (My parents, Ayn Rand and God.)

Common arguments against use of the serial comma:

  1. Improperly used, the comma may introduce ambiguity, and many authors are not clear on its proper use.
  2. I agree that it can be redundant in a simple list because the words  and & or  can serve to mark the logical separation between the final two items, when the final two items are a compound single item. (My parents, Marge and Bob.)
  3. When space is at a premium, the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text—not usually an issue in a novel or short story. This is a journalistic issue common when writing for a newspaper.

It is fashionable for wouldbe writers to argue against using the Oxford comma, claiming it is unnecessary. However, I frequently see manuscripts where good authors fail to delineate a list in such a way that their intention is clear, by using and & or, thus resulting confusion, and a book that is less enjoyable than it should be.

_72982736_vikings courtesy of BBCThe Oxford comma is the basis of many violent quarrels in writing groups–people tend to be rabidly for or against either side. There is common ground here, people so put away the torches!

Good writing incorporates proper use of both styles and, above all else, avoids ambiguity.

 

 

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