Lisa Davis: The grammar police
Sep 23, 2012 | 2010 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I spent some time this week proofreading sentences written by those untrained in the journalistic arts.

My head nearly exploded.

So today we are going to spend this entire column reviewing the rules of proper comma usage.

If we have any time left over, we’ll start on the proper use of apostrophes.

Back when I was in journalism school in college — yes, Virginia, some of us actually trained to be journalists — I had an insanely strict copyediting professor. Each error on a test was a letter grade off.

By golly, I learned my spelling, grammar and style.

“Style,” in this context, means AP style, as codified in the Associated Press Stylebook, a collection of rules for all sorts of minutia, such as when to abbreviate street names and state names. (“The names of eight states are never abbreviated in datelines or text: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah.”)

United Press International (UPI), a competitor to the Associated Press, had its own stylebook, which back in the day was legendary for this entry:

“burro, burrow: A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.”

Now, I would have used a comma after “journalist,” because isn’t that an introductory prepositional phrase?

Commas, people, commas!

Remember that punctuation book that went viral a few years ago, with the lesson that a simple comma can mean the difference between a gentle panda (“eats shoots and leaves”) and a homicidal animal with a gun (“eats, shoots and leaves”)?

You have to be careful with commas.

1. Place your comma inside the quote mark.

2. Do not stick a comma between your subject and your verb.

3. If you smush two sentences together, you need a comma before your “and” or your “but.”

4. If you stick in one comma, you will most likely need a second one. Commas frequently function like brackets, setting off information that is not actually essential. You should be able to remove the words between the commas without affecting the basic meaning of the sentence. For example: “Lisa Davis, who is a good writer, frequently embarrasses herself in public.”

5. And that brings us to the Oxford comma aka the serial comma. When making a list of things — “bread, milk and cheese” — some people would stick a comma in there before the “and.” That’s the Oxford comma. Book people tend to use the Oxford comma. Journalism people do not. It’s a longstanding argument that erupts into public view every few years or so, most recently after an erroneous report that Oxford University was going to stop using the Oxford comma.

One of the good things about the rise of the Internet is that is has brought us grammar nerds together. We know we are not alone as we drive to work, critiquing the punctuation on the fast food signs.

Rest assured, the grammar police are on the job, ceaselessly patrolling Facebook and ridiculing the mistakes in other people’s status updates.

Did you spot the comma error in this column? See what I did there?
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