Commas are often like confused children who have to learn different sets of rules for each of their divorced parents’ homes. At Mom’s house, it’s perfectly acceptable—in fact, it’s mandatory—to jump into place before the word and in a series.
“You need to do your homework, eat your dinner, and get to bed!” insisted Mom.
But at Dad’s place, things are different. Dad, at his grumpiest, recently told the comma, “Quit fooling around with that and! Do your homework, eat your dinner and get to bed!”
The comma does his best to do the right thing, but even when he knows he’s in the right place, Mom and Dad still give him trouble. At Mom’s house, he took his rightful place behind the state name in this sentence: “Solomons, Maryland, is a wonderful place to live.”
“What in tarnation are you doing there? You don’t belong there!” chided Mom.
At Dad’s, he rightfully slipped in behind the year: “January 1, 2013, is going to be the best New Year’s Day ever!”
“Get out of there, boy. You being there just ain’t natural,” cried Dad, horrified.
And the poor comma certainly never meant to come between Mom and Da—er, the subject and its verb.
The comma Mom favors in our first example is referred to as the series (or Oxford) comma. It is considered more exact and it helps to avoid confusion. This, however, is a style choice, and Associated Press style, favored by most newspapers, allows this comma to be dropped.
So neither Mom nor Dad is more correct than the other, though Mom has plenty of friends who support her point of view and Dad has his own pals who think he’s absolutely right. It’s all very confusing for a young comma struggling to find his place in this upside-down world.
At least there’s one thing Mom and Dad can agree on: It would be nothing but trouble if their little comma started hanging out with semicolons.
Reading update: I’m currently enjoying James Newman’s The Wicked, his spin on a 1980s-style horror novel, and Ian McEwan’s debut collection, First Love, Last Rites.