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Bill Bennett


Full stops beat commas

typewriterWhen training journalists, I joke that Americans use more commas than British journalists because they are rich and can afford the extra ink. The same applies to Irish, Australian or New Zealand journalists.

You often find long, comma-packed sentences in American newspapers. They don’t make for easy reading.

Use plenty of full stops instead — periods if you’re American — and spare the comma.

Keeping track of who does what to whom is hard in long, comma-laden sentences. Breaking sentences into smaller units of meaning makes writing easier to follow.

Commas for understanding

Only use commas where they aid understanding.

Writers often underrate the comma’s use as an aid to sense.

Some Americans put commas between all clauses and sub-clauses. Grammar checking software tells you to do the same. Ignore the nagging. Even when these tools are not using American rules, they often dance to American usage.

British-trained writers avoid them between short clauses at the start of sentences.

Americans also use commas before and at the end of a list of items. This is sometimes called the Oxford comma. That subject opens a fresh can of worms.

In Britain the last comma only gets used when one of the sequence items includes an and.

Some experts say Americans are moving towards British patterns and commas are now less common on both sides of the Atlantic. Let’s hope so.



3 thoughts on “Full stops beat commas

  1. I, sir, do, in fact, disagree, and with a, truly, wholehearted, and inflamed passion, which rivals, indeed, my supreme dearth of commas.


  2. There’s clearly some truth in the old cliché about Britain and America being divided by a common language.

  3. These claims are wholly unsubstantiated. Aside from using a comma before ‘and’ in lists, none of the places you claim Americans use commas align with the standard rules of comma usage in America. I have no idea what you mean by preferring full stops. If one uses a comma in a place where a period could be used, you are creating a comma splice run-on, which is incorrect in American English. I would love to see some examples of these comma-packed sentences from American newspapers, and how you would write them with fewer commas. Here is a good list of the standard rules for comma usage in the US: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/02/
    Which of these guidelines do you disagree with?

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