Part I: Your Questions about Commas, Answered

By the Fancy Comma, LLC Team

Updated May 31, 2021

As a freelance writing and editing company, we’re always here to help by providing helpful writing advice.  We noticed that many people visiting our site have questions about commas.  The good news is that we have some answers.

This post is part one of our blog series on commas. You can also read parts two, three, and four.

illustration of a comma with a speech bubble

For answers to your burning questions about commas and comma usage, including:

…keep reading!

Learn the answers to some frequently asked questions about commas.

What is the Oxford comma and when is it used?

Before we talk more about the Oxford comma and how it is used, let’s get some naming confusion out of the way.  The Oxford comma is another name for what is called the serial comma or series comma.  This type of comma is often called both the Oxford comma and the Harvard comma, because it is required by both Oxford and Harvard presses.  We will refer to this comma as the Oxford comma for the purposes of this blog post.

The Oxford comma is a comma placed right after the next-to-last item of a list of three items.  

Here is an example of the Oxford comma in use:

I went to the grocery store to pick up cereal, milk, and bread.

The Oxford comma is an optional stylistic element, meaning that some style guides use it, while others do not.  As a result, there are many different opinions out there about whether or not one should use an Oxford comma.

To Use or Not to Use the Oxford Comma?

At Fancy Comma, we are generally fans of the serial or Oxford comma, because omitting it can be confusing.  Consider, for example, this sentence:

I rode the downtown bus with a doctor, a golden retriever and a horticulturist.

This sentence is referring to three different parties riding the bus, but as written, it appears that the doctor could be both a golden retriever and a horticulturist.  Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma added for clarity:

I rode the downtown bus with a doctor, a golden retriever, and a horticulturist.

That’s a lot better!

We also recognize that there are some cases where using the Oxford comma could make a sentence more ambiguous.  Check out Stan Carey’s blog post on the ambiguity to see what we mean.

Does [phrase] Have a Comma?

Here’s a list of frequently asked questions about comma placement in various phrases.

Is there a comma in “Washington, D.C.”?

Yes — there is a comma after “Washington” and before “DC.”  This is because Washington is the city, which is located in D.C. — an abbreviation for the District of Columbia.  You could also write Washington, D.C. as Washington, District of Columbia, but this is rarely done.

In this regard, the comma in Washington, D.C. is similar to the comma found when discussing any other United States city, such as New York City, N.Y. or Dallas, Texas.

A comma is also often used to separate the phrase Washington, D.C., from the next part of the sentence. As the LA Times writes in their article on comma rules, if you’re hyphenating Washington, D.C., there’s no need to add a comma afterwards.  The LA Times gives the example of the phrase, “A Washington, D.C.-based think tank.”

Does LLC always have a comma before it?

According to LegalZoom, “it is legally acceptable,” in the United States, to register an LLC either with or without the preceding comma.  Whether a business owner chooses to use a comma before LLC, or not, is their personal choice.  Many business owners prefer to use a comma to set “LLC” apart from the rest of their business name, while others may omit the comma in favor of simplicity.

In terms of stylistic conventions, both AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style conventions omit the comma before LLC (even if the company does use a comma before LLC).  So, for both AP and Chicago style, our company name — Fancy Comma, LLC — would be written as “Fancy Comma LLC.”

Does Inc. or Ltd. always have a comma before it?

Chicago style does not require a comma before “Inc.” or “Ltd.” While a company may use a comma before the Inc., people writing about the company should pick one convention and stay consistent with their comma use.

AP style does not use a comma before Inc. or Ltd., as you can see in the example of eBay Inc. in this article from Purdue.

Is there a comma in “including, but not limited to?”

The phrase “including but not limited to” is used in many legal documents, both with and without commas.

Chicago Manual of Style states that “no punctuation is required” for the phrase, but recommends adding commas after including and before to — “including, but not limited to,” — especially if the phrase “introduces a long or complex list.”  “Dashes would work as well,” writes Chicago Style: “including — but not limited to –.”

What Is the History of the Comma?

The Comma Project recounts the storied history of commas.  Before alphabets existed, texts were memorized and passed on via storytelling.  Punctuation such as commas came along much later with the invention of written language, as a way to convert the spoken language into a text form and make it easier to read.  As the Comma Project writes, punctuation, capitalization, even spacing did not exist back then during the transition from oral to written language.

With the invention of alphabets, punctuation began to gain prominence as a way to reduce confusion.  Gradually, language shifted from an oral tradition to a written one.  With that, a need arose for the simplification of transcribed sentences to ones that could be more easily understood.

The invention of the printing press made written language more mainstream, and formalized punctuation rules, such as those related to adding a comma.

The invention of the printing press made written language more mainstream, and formalized punctuation rules, such as those related to adding a comma.  These days, there are specific rules for punctuation that tell us how to use a comma.  The present rules do not pertain to how to read the text, but rather, break down written passages into easier-to-understand fragments.

To learn more about the comma’s evolving history and best practices for its use in the current day, visit The Comma Project.

Where Can I Learn More about Commas?

For more on when to use a comma, check out the following resources:

Finally, it’s important to know how to use commas properly. However, keep in mind that many of the comma-related norms out there are merely stylistic suggestions rather than grammatical truth.  As the University of Nebraska writes, “Correct comma usage is an art, not a science.  Writers will sometimes disagree on when to use a comma or omit one.”

Many of the comma-related norms out there are merely stylistic suggestions rather than grammatical truth.

animation of a comma next to the words "all about commas"

Have more questions about commas?  Leave a comment below!

This post is our first in a series of posts answering your comma questions. You can also read parts two, three, and four. Check out Fancy Comma, LLC’s writing and editing services here.


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