When reviewing a document someone else has written or receiving feedback from others on my own writing, there is one word that I, like most other serious writers, strive never to utter or hear: Comma.
Everyone has an opinion and his/her own writing style vis a vis the use of commas, the most abused and overused item of punctuation in the English language. Want to start a heated debate among writers? Just ask one simple question, duck and run, because there is likely to be vociferous disagreement about the answer to this query:
“Should there be a comma after that word?”
Variations on that theme include, “Does that comma belong there?” and my personal favorite: “Now that you mention it, I think there should [or shouldn’t] be a comma . . . ” in various other parts of the document being analyzed.
Ready to weigh in on one of the many controversial aspects of correct comma placement?
I was taught that this sentence is correct:
Be sure to give each guest a fork, spoon and napkin.
However, some folks insist that one additional comma is necessary so that the sentence becomes:
Be sure to give each guest a fork, spoon, and napkin.
It seems that the “trend” these days is to include the comma before “and” when listing three or more items. The rationale is a sound one: To assure clarity. In this era of “plain language” and emphasis on concise, straight-forward business writing, I am not opposed to making this change in my writing habits.
Now consider this sentence:
The guests will be offered fresh strawberries, strawberry yogurt or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
I was taught never to place a comma before “or” in a sentence containing a list of items such as the one above. The exception would be, of course, if it was necessary, again, to achieve clarity due, for example, to the use of compound items in the list. Thus, this sentence would be incorrect:
The guests will be offered fresh strawberries, strawberry yogurt, or vanilla ice cream for dessert.
This week I spent some time researching this issue and found that the vast majority of textbooks and writing guides only reference the placement of a comma when creating a list using “and”. They are silent as to the use of “or” — which I find curious.
What do you think? Leave a comment and citation to your source. I will be anxious to hear your thoughts!