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The Comma and More

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The use of "and" in combination with adjacent commas seems to attract surprisingly polarized arguments among writers of different styles. As communicators, we often use the word "and" to link two phrases or parts of a sentence.

One popular remedy is that whenever we use the word "and", we should not therefore need to include a comma before or after the "and" as well. The basic argument is that the word "and" alone provides sufficient pause to separate the two clauses.

Therefore, should we or shouldn't we use a comma with "and"? Which is "correct"? Does either option really matter that much?

Remember the purpose of a comma is simply to provide a shorter pause than a full stop. So what's the answer? Compare and contrast the following three examples:

  • Option 1, without a comma:
    "Jessica appeared tense and lost in her own thoughts."
  • Option 2, including the comma:
    "Jessica appeared tense, and lost in her own thoughts."
  • Option 3 (best), remove the word "and", keep the comma:
    "Jessica appeared tense, lost in her own thoughts."

In Option 2 above, including a comma before the word "and" suggests to the reader, to apply a slightly longer break — a split-second "thought-space" in which the reader is urged to ponder a little longer before continuing reading, to perhaps intensify the scene.

Sometimes, a comma works well to create the effect you want. Sometimes however, there is little benefit or reason to use a comma. Sometimes, inserting a comma can allow you to omit yet another "and" word.

For example, Option 3 above seems to offer the best solution for the three options above, by simply keeping the comma and removing the word "and". In this instance, arguably the sentence is improved by "tightening up" the writing.

Some Benefits — And Drawbacks — of Using Commas Before the Word "And"

The relationship between the word "and" plus the comma can sometimes be surprising:

  • In some instances, adding a comma with the associated "and" can indeed make a surprising difference to the meaning of a sentence.
  • In other instances, little value appears evident by adding a comma. If not required, omit your comma.
  • At other times, removing the often associated "and" word can resolve our problem
  • Sometimes, adding a comma in the wrong place can change the entire meaning, even impacting negatively on your sentence or user understanding.

How To Stop A World War?

Before the outbreak of World War 1, the various factions would often communicate using telegrams.

A poorly placed comma within a key telegram was rumored to have resulted in a serious misunderstanding by the recipient, drastically degrading relations. Soon after, World War 1 broke out.

Which begs the question, was a simple misplaced squiggle responsible for the deaths of millions?

Something that perhaps historians and thinkers will be exploring hopefully for centuries to come.

Although the true causes of the war were no doubt, far more complex, we nevertheless wonder what the outcome might have been had communications between the various parties been more clear-cut in every instance.

Perhaps World War 1 — and what followed as a result: World War 2, the Cold War, and more — could have been prevented, or its impact lessened.

Key tip: developing good judgment is the key to dealing with the comma issue and many other dilemmas in writing. Read often and widely. Test alternative word flows. Keep practicing to develop and perfect your writing style.

Three More Tips

From previous tips available on this website, I've suggested that the mechanics of communication is a continually evolving scenario. Therefore, consider the following guidelines:

  • The "comma-adjacent-and" question is another area in which there's no necessarily right or wrong answer. Much depends on the specific writing snippet in question. Therefore, I recommend that you assess to determine whether including a comma before the "and" that separates two clauses improves the sentence.
  • Alternatively, here's one way to avoid the entire question. Whenever possible or appropriate, look for ways to omit the use of "and" in your writing. With some revising, you may discover that losing "and" can often make a sentence tighter, clearer, more direct.
  • For example, here's a variation of the sentence above rewritten without "and" or its associate comma: "Jessica looked tense, lost in her own thoughts. The trials of yesterday overshadowed by a sudden violent flashback, of being shackled, helpless, in that stinking basement ..."

As the author / communicator, you always get to decide the precise path to take in your writing and speaking projects. Have fun.

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