The Power of a Well-Placed Comma

The comma is an often-overlooked punctuation mark that can really carry a punch. Who cares about a little comma, you may wonder? Well, let me highlight some of the reasons why the small but powerful comma is so very important.

To start, consider this famous sentence: A woman without her man is nothing.

Many people, when asked to add what punctuation they believe is missing, rewrite this sentence as: A woman, without her man, is nothing.

However, if those people happen to be female, the rewrite tends to be a bit different: A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Oh, the difference a well-placed comma (and colon) can make! When you read the above sentence without punctuation, you can’t know what the author intended. Punctuation = clarity.

Here are a few more sentences whose meanings are skewed when a comma is omitted.

When are we eating Mom?
Without a comma inserted after eating, it sounds like Mom’s days may be numbered.

I enjoy barbecuing my friends and my cats.
Without commas, this seems like a singular (and creepy) hobby. We assume the writer meant:

I enjoy barbecuing, my friends, and my cats.
Three separate hobbies. At least we hope so.

Commas also bring clarity when a sentence contains several items. Consider:

We’re packing peanut butter and jelly salmon and cream cheese and tuna and pickle sandwiches.

Peanut butter jelly salmon cream cheese tuna pickle sandwich? No thanks! But what the writer probably meant is:

We’re packing peanut butter and jelly, salmon and cream cheese, and tuna and pickle sandwiches.

Now we’ll reconsider eating lunch.

Commas, or lack thereof, can make for some funny sentences. But there’s a dark side to this whole lack of punctuation business. Do you know that companies have been sued for not using a comma? I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true. It happened to a dairy business in Maine.

In 2014, delivery drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy in Maine and eventually settled for $5 million, all due to the lack of a comma! The comma in question is known as the Oxford or serial comma. An Oxford comma is the comma that is used before the “and” in a series of three or more things (e.g., the bat, the ball, and the glove).

I won’t bore you with the lawsuit details, but it boils down to this. The drivers believed the missing comma between “shipment” and “distribution” in the following sentence meant that it was one activity, when in fact the company meant it as two separate activities: (1) packing for shipment, or (2) distribution.

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…

And that is why the Oxford comma is so very important. It leaves no doubt as to the author’s intent.

I would like to tell you that there has only been that single lawsuit about missing punctuation, but the truth is there have been numerous lawsuits that stemmed from misused or missing punctuation. And that’s why using the services of professional proofreaders can save you time, lawsuits, and a whole lot of money! Contact us to learn more about our services.

Next post topic: hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes…oh my!

Author: Sue Franco