By Hannah Wolfe
A little over a year ago, a tweet posted by the Associated Press caused a stir when the lack of a comma gave their post an alternative meaning. Thousands of followers nearly had a heart attacks upon reading the below tweet that left readers stunned that a plane crashed and spurred disaster.
The misuse, or in this case, lack of, a comma can change the meaning of a sentence and damage the author’s credibility. Although AP clarified the tweet’s intended meaning with a follow up post, their credibility on the subject was compromised.
AP’s followers were angered by the mistake and tweeted back at them, sharing AP’s grave mistake with their individual network of followers. The backlash over this tweet was deserved. Not only did the tweet convey false information, but it made the difference between life and death. AP may have cost themselves a group of loyal constituents and a reputation they have worked for decades to build.
However, AP was not the first to make an error of this magnitude, and they certainly will not be the last. Commas are often forgotten and misused. Simply dropping one into a sentence because it seems right, or failing to include one at all, invalidates a piece of writing, and by the transitive property, you as the author. The question remains, why does this keep happening? Perhaps a basic review of commas will help.
The Standard Comma
The uses of a standard comma have been engrained in our memories since grade school. In case anyone has made the grave mistake of forgetting proper punctuation with regards to the standard comma, do yourself a favor and review the basics.
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma is also known as the optional comma. It is inserted before the “and” of a list. Although most writers don’t use it, the Oxford comma can be useful in clarifying the meaning of a sentence if the items in the list are not single words. Some of you might be wondering why the Oxford comma even exists. You’re not the first.
Legend has it that authors Jack Kerouak and William S. Burroughs had a little disagreement over the Oxford comma in 1968. We won’t rehash the gory details, but neither authors’ exuberant passion was enough to end the war over the Oxford comma. Maybe we’ll never know how it started, or who threw the first punch, but the point is, the Oxford comma has been in question since before the invention of floppy disks and the devastating breakup of the Beatles.
The Walken Comma
Unlike the unrest over the legitimacy of the Oxford comma, everyone loves the Walken comma. The Walken comma is fairly self-explanatory if you’ve ever heard actor Christopher Walken speak. These commas are inserted to indicate a dramatic pause in the sentence, and are extremely important when a piece of writing is read aloud. Failure to dramatically pause when encountering a Walken comma in a reading will render the piece completely and utterly ineffective.
Disclaimer: Walken commas are almost exclusively reserved for use by Christopher Walken himself.
Everyone knows commas are important, but this classic example of how inserting a comma can change the meaning of a sentence even saves Grandma’s life.
Let’s eat Grandma. and
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Thanks to the life saving grace of one comma, these are two completely different sentences with completely alternative meanings.
So save a life. Use a comma.