Serial Comma: To Use or Not to Use


Grammar geeks all over the world will battle this issue until the end of time. It’s almost as controversial as abortion, health care, and gay rights. The debate: the serial comma (aka the Oxford comma) and its relevancy.

What is the Oxford comma?

This is a comma usually used before the word ‘and’ in a series.

Ie: For dinner, we had mashed potatoes, fried chicken, green beans, and rolls.

In school, we were taught to always use that comma. No exceptions. However, when I worked on my college newspaper, I learned that Associate Press says to remove it. What?! It felt like my world turned upside down.

Should You Use the Oxford Comma?

It depends. If you’re writing a college paper, probably. Although, I’ve heard some professors don’t care. If you work for a magazine or newspaper, probably not. If you’re writing for your blog, decide and be consistent.

The comma was originally deleted to save space in newsprint, and with everything going digital, that’s no longer a concern, so it may make sense to use it. I’m a fan of using the comma because you can change the entire meaning of a sentence without it:

Not using the Oxford comma
Photo from:

I don’t argue usage often because, much like religion, the decision to use the Oxford comma is a personal one. My rational is I can list more reasons to use it instead of not using it. It does clarify meaning, it does help the reader pause, and it separates items in a series. Saving space is not enough of a reason to not use it.

And even though my job requires me to remove it and follow AP style, I do use it if there is more than one ‘and’ in a sentence because AP doesn’t address that instance.

Ie: On our vacation, we hiked and biked though the mountains, ate seafood, and went to an amusement park.

Therefore, I recommend using it unless otherwise told. I don’t think the Oxford comma will ever disappear, especially with more than 30,000 Facebook fans and possibly millions of hard-core grammarians supporting its usage.

What are your thoughts? Are you pro or anti Oxford comma? Tell us why in the comments section!

How to Use a Semicolon


Semicolons (;) are sexy when used correctly. They are so cool, they can not only replace a comma but also an entire word. Many writers often misuse them or use a comma instead.

Some writers discourage semicolon usage in Web writing because they are hard to see, but sometimes you have to use them in order to save space and manage your tone. Periods are often hard stops, and semicolons are a good way to keep the reader reading and keep you from sounding abrupt.

Common terms used in this post:

Conjunction = A word that connects words or groups of words. Eg: and, but, or

Here’s a quick guide to semicolons:

Rule 1: Use a semicolon to join two complete sentences if you want to eliminate the conjunction.

Example: We’ll talk tomorrow; I’ll give you the details.

Rule 2: Use a semicolon between two sentences with a conjunction if the first sentence has a comma.

Example: When I finish the list, I will email you; and you can start your project.

Rule 3: Use a semicolon before introductory words such as however, therefore, and for example, if they introduce a complete sentence. Then use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I went to the bookstore; however, I did not find the book I needed.

Rule 4: It is acceptable to use either a semicolon or a comma before an introductory word if it introduces a list. Use a comma after the introductory word.

Example: I bought all of my supplies; for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Example (with comma): I bought all of my supplies, for example, pens, paper, stapler, and laptop.

Rule 5: Semicolons separate multiple units that have commas within them. Think multiple cities and states. Note the semicolon before and.

Example: We traveled to Chicago, Illinois; Nashville, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas.

For those punctuation nerds out there, check out the 13 little-known punctuation marks. My favorite is the sarcmark; what’s yours?

Sources: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar, my brain

Hyphen Help with Words


As we discussed in Hyphen Help, there are specific rules for using hyphens with words. And the dictionary is your friend.

This week, I’m going to cover the rules of hyphens with one word. Should you use a hyphen or combine the prefix and root word? It depends.

Common terms used in this post:

Prefix = comes at the front of a word (two to four letters)

Suffix = comes at the end of a word (two to four letters)

Proper noun = A particular person (being) or thing, capitalized

Vowel = a, e, i, o, u, sometimes y

Root word = a word within a word that has a prefix or suffix

* Most times it is okay not to use a hyphen. If in doubt, look it up or go without. The following rules are when to use a hyphen with a word:

1. Use a hyphen when a prefix comes before a proper noun. As you can see combining them would look a little odd because the proper noun is capitalized.

Examples: un-American, non-Baptist

2. Use a hyphen if a prefix ends in a or i and the root word begins with the same letter.

Examples: semi-intoxicated, ultra ambitious

3. Hyphenate all words that begin with self. The only exceptions are selfish and selfless.

Examples: self-addressed, self-supporting

4. If the prefix is -ex, use a hyphen.

Examples: ex-husband, ex-Marine

5. If the prefix is re-, only use a hyphen when re- means again and not using a hyphen would create another word.

Examples: re-sort vs. resort; re-creation vs. recreation; re-covered vs. recovered

When to not use a hyphen and just combine the parts to create word:

1. When a prefix ends in one vowel and a root word begins with a different one, combine them.

Examples: antiaircraft, coauthor, preamble

2. If you get a double e or double o, combine the parts. However there are exceptions, so be sure to look it up if you are not sure.

Examples: cooperative, proactive

Exceptions: co-owner, de-emphasize

(The only reason I could see these being exceptions is because they would look odd without the hyphen. If you know the rule, or have another opinion, I’d love to hear it!)

Sources: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar,, my brain

Hyphen Help


Good grammar and punctuation can make or break a post. It can make or break a chance for a job interview, promotion, or even getting a date. Good grammar and punctuation show attention to detail and how much you care about your work.

I spend a lot of time explaining grammar rules. It’s especially important for professional writers and editors to know the rules, so they can improve their projects and offer good feedback. For this first grammar tip post, I chose hyphens because I’m asked more questions about them that any other type of punctuation.

Hyphen (-)

Hyphens, like commas, are tricky and have several rules. A hyphen is used to combine words to form one idea. Here is a breakdown of the rules for compound words. A later post about single words, like co-owner, will follow soon.

* An important hyphen tip is to first look up the word in the dictionary. If you can’t find it, then read these rules to see what fits.

Common terms used in this post:

Compound = two words combined to create one idea

Noun = A person, place, thing, or idea

Verb = A word that shows movement or action

Adjective = Words that describe a noun or pronoun

Adverb = Words that modify everything else (verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.)


1. Is the compound noun one word or two? If you can’t find it in the dictionary, make it two words.

Examples: eye shadow, ballpark, hot dog

2. Verbs are two words, nouns and adjectives are one.

Examples: clean up (verb) vs. cleanup (noun)

3. Compound verbs either have a hyphen or are one word.

Examples: downsize, upshift, to air-condition the house

4. Hyphenate two or more adjectives when they come before a noun. However, if you can use the word ‘and’ in between the adjectives, use a comma.

Examples with hyphens: family-friendly, reddish-brown, funny-looking

Examples with commas: tall, smelly (tall and smelly); cute, sexy (cute and sexy)

5. When compound adverbs that do not end in -ly come before a noun, use a hyphen.

Examples: well-known, much-needed, top-notch

6. Hyphenate numbers twenty-one (21) through ninety-nine (99)

7. Hyphenate all spelled out fractions.

Examples: one-third, one-half, seven-eighths


If you have special tips or want to share more examples, do so in the comments section below!

Source: The Blue Book of Punctuation and Grammar