Tag Archives: style

3 Places You Can Use a Comma, or Not

Note: this is part three of a three-part series on comma use. Be sure to check out these posts as well:

5 Surprising Places You Need a Comma

3 Surprising Places You Don’t Need a Comma

My last two blog posts on commas were all about the official rules of where you do or do not place a comma. But not all comma rules are written in stone; this time, let’s take a look at the situations in which comma use is entirely up to you.

1. Before the last item in a series. When you’re listing three or more items, you can choose whether or not to use a comma before the final item in the series:

Red, white, and blue or red, white and blue

Word nerds often have very passionate opinions about this comma, which is called the serial comma or Oxford comma. For example, you can buy this t-shirt—

—even though Thomas Jefferson did not use a serial comma when he wrote about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”:

People who use the AP Stylebook argue that the serial comma is not necessary because the and signals that the last item of the series is coming up. People who follow The Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA Style Manual say that it is necessary, pointing out that omitting the final comma can result in comical misreading:

And then non-serial-comma-users will point out that the sentence could easily be rearranged so it doesn’t imply that Washington and Lincoln were rhinoceri. The argument goes on forever.

As I always say about matters of style, the most important thing is consistency. Either always use an Oxford comma or never use one.

2. After a brief introductory word or phrase. If you have just a word or a few words introducing your sentence, you can choose whether or not to use a comma before the rest of the sentence.

On a whim, we decided to spend the weekend in Vegas.
In retrospect, it would have been easier to take a taxi.
Later, we’ll look back on this and laugh.


On a whim we decided to spend the weekend in Vegas.
In retrospect it would have been easier to take a taxi.
Later we’ll look back on this and laugh.

You get to decide when you want to use a comma with short introductory phrases. But if you are going to leave out the comma, make sure that doing so won’t cause misreading.

X Before eating the family always said grace.
Before eating, the family always said grace.

With a longer introductory phrase, you should always use a comma to prevent confusion.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I ever have seen a baby squirrel.
And on top of everything else, I came down with the flu.

There’s no real consensus about the exact number of words an introductory phrase needs to have before it requires a comma; most websites recommend somewhere between three and five, but none of the major style guides addresses it directly. I always use a comma after four words, but I picked that number arbitrarily. You can set your own rule.

3. With the word too. When using too to mean in addition, you can just put it in the sentence, or you can set it off with a comma (or a pair of commas if it’s mid-sentence).

I, too, wish summer could last forever.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.”


I too wish summer could last forever.
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”

Using a comma with too creates a pause around the word, giving it more emphasis. Read your sentence aloud, and if you naturally pause at too, add a comma (or commas). If it flows as part of the sentence, leave it be.

I hope this series on comma use has helped clarify when you should or should not use a comma, and when you can choose for yourself. If you have any questions about commas, please ; as these posts prove, I’m always happy to talk about comma use.

OK, Let’s Talk About How to Spell “Okay,” O.K.?

O.K., you know what’s weird? OK is one of the most commonly used words in English (—which is pretty darn high when you realize that ). But there’s no definitive way to spell okay! Why is it that we don’t know how to spell a word that we use every day? Because it started as an abbreviation and has become a full word over time.

The word dates back to 1839, when there was a fad in New York and Boston slang to misspell a saying and then abbreviate it. , an excellent guide to etymology, lists a few others that didn’t stand the test of time:

  • K.G. for no go, as if spelled know go
  • N.C. for ’nuff ced
  • K.Y. for know yuse

O.K. is an abbreviation for oll korrect. It probably would have disappeared along with the other abbreviations if not for the 1840 presidential election. Martin Van Buren was nicknamed Old Kinderhook (after the village in upstate New York where he was born), and his supporters formed the O.K. Club.

You can buy this 1840 wood-block engraving showing the origin of O.K. for just $2,295 on eBay.

The first instance of spelling out okay was in 1895, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but this spelling wasn’t popularized until the 1930s; President Woodrow Wilson (who served from 1913 to 1921) apparently approved government papers by writing okeh.

But over the second half of the twentieth century, the new spelling really took off. shows the skyrocketing popularity of okay over O.K. and OK in published books.

Does this mean you should use okay? Not necessarily. The major style guides actually lean toward OK.

The AP Stylebook—favored by newspapers—puts it succinctly: “OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs. Do not use okay.”

The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing—the guide for academic writing—doesn’t directly address the question, but it recommends turning to a reliable dictionary such as Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary for spelling questions and notes, “Where entries show variant spellings, use the form given first.” Webster’s lists OK first, so that is the preferred spelling for academic work.

The Chicago Manual of Style—used by book publishers—is silent on the issue, too, but in a Q&A on the website, the editors responded:

CMOS doesn’t specify, but as it happens, the manual uses ‘OK’ twice … and does not use ‘okay’ at all. … We follow Webster’s 11th Collegiate, which puts ‘OK’ as the first spelling—but that does not mean it is preferred. Rather, ‘okay’ is an equal variant (also standard).”

If you like periods with your abbreviations, it’s not incorrect to use them in this case, but it is a bit outdated. At this point, the only major publications that favor O.K. with periods are and .

So how should you spell it? If you’re not bound to a particular style guide, choose whichever spelling you like best. As always with questions of style, though, pick one and be consistent.

Is It Correct to Call Christmas “Xmas”?

The word Xmas, like fruitcake, is one of those holiday traditions that everyone knows of but no one quite understands. Is it proper English to shorten Christmas to Xmas? Is it offensive? No one seems quite sure. So my Xmas gift to you is a quick clarification.

Contrary to popular belief, Xmas is neither an error nor an attempt to take the Christ out of Christmas. The X comes from the Greek letter chi, which is the beginning of Khristos, the Greek word for Christ. In Greek, the word looks like this:

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the use of X to mean Christ back to 1021 AD and the use of Xmas back to 1551 AD, so if you choose to write the word, you have a long history of legitimate usage backing you up.

However, you should be warned that style guides frown on the use of Xmas. The AP Stylebook admonishes, “Never abbreviate Christmas to Xmas or any other form.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage agrees about Xmas, commanding, “Do not use; spell out Christmas.”

And keep in mind that if you use it, you also risk offending Christians who aren’t aware of the word’s origin.

So when can you use Xmas? I thought of four scenarios:

  • If you’re making your own holiday cards, and you want the letters to fit on the page easily
  • If you’re writing a tweet, and the extra five characters in Christmas would put you over the 140-character limit
  • If you’re sending a text message on a flip phone, and typing Christmas will take significantly longer than typing Xmas
  • If you’re a natural contrarian, and you enjoy explaining to people that using Xmas is not actually wrong

Don’t do that last one if you work for a newspaper. Can you think of any other occasions to use Xmas? Leave them in the comments.

And have a very merry Xmas.

Are You “Utilizing” Useless Buzzwords?

Yes, my writing skills are stronger than my PowerPoint drawing skills. But you can tell it’s a bee, right? Right.

“Avoid fancy words.” This command from is excellent writing advice whether you’re publishing a novel or sending an email. They admonish, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

But somehow we all end up choosing longer, showier words to say something that could be said simply—especially in business writing. Here are just a few of the worst offenders:

Buzzwords Better Words
actionable (adj.) useful
cutting-edge (adj.) advanced
implement (v.) do
incentivize (v.) encourage
innovative (adj.) new
facilitate (v.) ease
groundbreaking (adj.) fresh
monetize (v.) profit from
paradigm (n.) model, pattern
solutioneer (n.) problem-solver
solutioneer (v.) solve
synergy (n.) teamwork
takeaway (n.) lesson
utilize (v.) use

Open one of your business documents and do a search for each of these words. Are you using buzzwords without noticing? Believe me; it’s easy to do.

Now try replacing your buzzwords with the stronger words in the right-hand column. You’ll be pleased with how much simpler and snappier your writing becomes.

Buzzwords will never go away entirely. But the less you use them, the better your business communication will be. So whenever you start reaching for one of these words, remember this post, and repeat the mantra: “Avoid fancy words.”

How should you write a.m. and p.m.?

Bidding’s still going on eBay for this festive clock.

Being a night owl, I rarely go to bed before 1:00 AM. Or is that 1:00 A.M.? Or maybe 1:00 am? 1:00 a.m.? 1:00 am? Nope, it’s 1:00 a.m.:

The meeting was moved to 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.
My flight is at 8:10 p.m.

The abbreviations a.m. and p.m. come from the Latin phrases ante meridiem and post meridiem, meaning, respectively, “before noon” and “after noon.” As with many other Latin abbreviations that we use in English—e.g., i.e., et al., etc.—the preferred style is to use lowercase letters with periods.

The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, the MLA Style Manual, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary all recommend this style. But keep in mind that it is a question of style, so some people may disagree. If your company has an in-house preference for small caps with no periods, that’s what you should use.

Related fun fact: It’s not technically correct to say 12:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.; noon cannot logically be after noon, and midnight could be either twelve hours before or twelve hours after noon. If you want to be a real stickler, say 12:00 noon or 12:00 midnight.

Of course, we could solve both of these problems by using the twenty-four-hour clock. British people are laughing at us for even needing to consider these questions. But Americans seem about as likely to convert to the twenty-four-hour clock as to the metric system, so we’re stuck with these debates for the foreseeable future.

Do you have a preference for one of the other styles of writing a.m. and p.m.? Do you cringe when other people use 12:00 p.m.? Or do you roll your eyes about that technicality? Do you use a twenty-four-hour clock? Share your thoughts below.

Is Data Plural?

Is data plural? Well, it started out that way. Data is the plural form of the Latin word datum, meaning “something given.” English adopted the word in the mid-1600s and kept the Latin construction, at least until recently. Nowadays, usage guides approve treating data as a collective noun, in the manner of information or money, and using a singular verb.

How should you use it? That depends on what you’re writing.

In formal and scientific writing, you should use a plural verb with the word data:

The polling data show the voters are still undecided.
The data indicate unemployment is still high.
What do the data say?

In informal contexts, you can use a singular verb:

The polling data shows the voters are still undecided.
The data indicates unemployment is still high.
What does the data say?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “Both constructions are standard.” But deciding the level of formality you want to use can be tricky. If you treat data as plural, you risk sounding stuffy, but if you treat it as singular, you risk sounding undereducated.

Just accept that no matter which usage you pick, it’s going to sound wrong to at least a few people. So carefully consider your audience and pick the style that you think will sound correct to most of your readers.

And most importantly, be consistent with the way you use data. Make a conscious decision to treat it as plural or singular, and use it the same way every time.

Still having trouble deciding? You can avoid this dilemma altogether by rewriting the sentence so data isn’t the subject:

According to the polling data, the voters are still undecided.
Unemployment is still high, as indicated by new data.
What conclusions can we draw from the data?

On a related note, datum is rarely used anywhere outside of scientific journals. If you want to talk about a single unit of data, use the more familiar term datapoint.

Easy Rules for Capitalizing Titles: 4 Alternative Title Styles

Think back to your high school English classes. You were probably taught that the proper way to write titles is to capitalize the first, last, and all major words. But what qualifies as a major word? The two style guides that recommend this structure don’t quite agree.

The MLA Style Manual—which is used in scholarly publishing—says to lowercase all articles (a, an, the); prepositions (against, as, between, in, of, to); coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet); and the to in infinitives (The Courage to Be).

The Chicago Manual of Style—which is used in book publishing—makes it more complicated. The guide agrees with the MLA about articles and the to in infinitives, but it says to capitalize propositions when they’re being used adverbially or adjectivally (Look Up, the On Button). And it only recommends lowercasing the conjunctions and, but, for, or, and nor.

So the correct title capitalization will vary slightly, depending on which of these styles you’re using:

MLA: The Neighbors Came over and Complained about the Loud Music, so We Turned down the Volume

Chicago: The Neighbors Came Over and Complained about the Loud Music, So We Turned Down the Volume

Ugh. I’ll just say it: No one apart from an editor who specializes in one of these styles wants to waste time trying to figure out these rules. Even if you have all the parts of speech memorized—and that’s a big if—are you going to sit around pondering whether a preposition is being used adverbially? Of course not. You have better things to do.

Here’s the good news: There are other rules about capitalizing titles, and they’re a lot easier to follow. If you’re thinking about how to capitalize titles on your website (or report or presentation), here are a few different options you should consider:

1) You could use sentence-style capitalization
This is the format currently favored by the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which makes headline capitalization much simpler than the other style guides do: “Only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized.” , one of many newspapers that follow AP style, has numerous examples of sentence-case headlines.

2) You Could Capitalize Every Word In The Title
Many primarily online publications, such as and , favor this style. It looks more formal than sentence case, but it’s just as easy to do.

This style works great for short titles, such as the navigation bar and page headers of a website (e.g., this website). But use this style carefully; if you have a lot of titles on a page, using all caps will make visitors think you’re shouting at them.

4) you could make the title lowercase
Some youth-oriented companies, such as , lowercase every word in the title, proper nouns and all. This style is an affectation, so if you’re going to use it, you need to think about your audience: Older people will hate it, and younger people may find it patronizing. You’re running a real risk of coming off like the dad who tries to use modern slang to show his teenager that he’s cool. Use with caution.

Very close observers may notice that I don’t follow my own advice when I write blog headlines. Why? Mostly because many clients expect me to use a more traditional headline style, and I want to show that I know how. And also because I actually like figuring out what part of speech a word is. But you don’t have to be like me! Save yourself time and effort by using one of these easier title styles.