If you’ve ever had *that* discussion with a colleague about how to use punctuation in bullet points or numbered lists – and I know you have, because you asked me to post about it – then you’ll know it’s a controversial topic.
That’s why it’s spelled out in most of the major style guides. This post details the punctuation rules for the style guides I’ve written for various companies, based on AP Style (used by journalists), Macquarie style, Oxford style, and a few others.
Why care about whether your bullet points and numbered lists have punctuation, “and/or”s, and the like?
Because all of this affects readability, and y’all know, we live in the Golden Age of Skimreading. Readability is king.
The Oxford comma is when you put a comma before “and” or “or” or another conjunction, at the end of a list of three or more items.
e.g. I like to read books, write books, and talk about books.
e.g. I like to read, write, but not talk about books.
The Oxford comma is a special comma guidelines used by a lot of style guides here in Australia, including the style guides at QSuper and Canstar, which I wrote during my time there.
Why use the Oxford comma?
There are three reasons to use the Oxford comma:
Makes a sentence clearer if there are multiple “and”s.
Without the comma, the end of the sentence can become the observer/receiver of the sentence (incorrectly).
Without the comma, the end of the sentence can become a descriptive clause (incorrectly).
Using commas to make sentences easier to read
First, the Oxford comma is helpful because it separates the last item in the list from the second-last item, making the sentence clearer.
Here’s a comparison of using the Oxford comma vs not using it:
e.g. With the comma: QSuper now offers multiple different types of insurance, including death, total and permanent disability, and income protection cover.
e.g. Without the comma – less clear: QSuper now offers multiple different types of insurance, including death, total and permanent disability and income protection cover.
Using commas to keep sentences correct
Secondly, the Oxford comma is helpful because without the last comma, it can seem as if the end two items of the list are the observer or receiver of your sentence. An example can explain this better than I can:
e.g. With the comma: I love my pets, family, and friends.
e.g. Without the comma: I love my pets, family and friends. >>> You are actually telling your family and friends that you love your pets, i.e. “Family and friends, I love my pets.”
Thirdly, the Oxford comma is helpful because without it, it can seem as if the end two items of a list are describing the rest of the sentence (“a descriptive clause”, if you want to get nerdy).
e.g. With the comma: I love my pets, Mum, and Dad.
e.g. Without the comma: I love my pets, Mum and Dad. >>> I am saying that Mum and Dad are my pets, and they would really not be happy about that.
Why is it called the Oxford comma?
Now let’s get really nerdy! The “Oxford” comma is called by this name because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press editors and printers.
They also called it the “serial comma” because it’s used for lists, but since “serial” makes me think of serial killers, I don’t use that name.
Now, the Oxford Style Guide themselves dropped the “requirement” for an Oxford comma in all cases in 2011, and made it a guideline instead.
But there are still got many good reasons to use the Oxford comma, so I’m happy it’s sticking around.
As far as I’m concerned, there are three scenarios: using the Oxford comma correctly, not using the Oxford comma and being wrong.
(Joke. But seriously, it physically hurt me not to put the comma there.)
(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you repost or share. Thanks!
This is probably the most hilarious post we’ll ever see on this page – and I’m keeping it PG on purpose so just… What can I say?
Is it ‘bare with me’ or ‘bear with me’?
“bare” = not clothed, simple, uncovered.
e.g. They bared their soul with me by talking about their childhood, and I appreciate it.
e.g. They got bare with me, and we went skinny dipping.
So if we were to say “bare with me”, just make really, really sure that you actually want something to be undressed or uncovered…
“to bear” = to be patient / to hold up under pressure / to hold on during adversity.
e.g. We’re asking you to bear with us while we make our decision.
e.g. I can’t bear the humiliation.
So if we were to say “bear with me”, we would be asking someone to be patient with us while we talk something through with them, take a while to find some information for them, ask them more questions, etc.
(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you share or repost, thanks!
When I used to run business writing training for teams at QSuper to learn the company’s written style and tone of voice, people always asked me to explain where the full stop goes when you have other punctuation at the end of a sentence.
It’s also a common mistake I’ve seen people get wrong a lot, whether they’re writing for business or fiction authors.
This mainly happens with brackets and quotation marks, so that’s what I’ll cover here. Comment down below if you have other full stop questions you want to ask about!
Where does the full stop go?
A full stop always, always, always goes at the end of a full sentence.
So you need to ask yourself, is the thing inside the “quotation marks” or (brackets) or other punctuation a full sentence on its own?
Does it make sense if you put it alone and give it its own full stop?
e.g. When I used to run training for the company style guide (which I helped write), I had a lot of fun.
>>> Can you see how (which I helped write) is not a full sentence on its own? Writing (Which I helped write.) wouldn’t make sense.
So the full stop needs to go at the end of the sentence, not within the brackets.
Where does the full stop go, inside or outside the quotation marks?
If the quote is a complete sentence on its own, it gets its own full stop within the quotation marks.
e.g. The Minister said, “Super is awesome.”
Where the quote is just a clause – not a full sentence – the full stop goes at the very end, after any quotation marks or brackets.
e.g. The Minister said the superannuation industry was “changing quickly”.
>>> “changing quickly” is not a full sentence, so the sentence needs to go outside the quotation marks.
Where does the full stop go, inside or outside the brackets?
If the bracketed phrase is a complete sentence on its own, it gets its own full stop inside the brackets.
e.g. QSuper offers different types of insurance. (At the time of writing, these are death cover, TPD cover, and IP cover.)
Where the quote or bracketed phrase is just a clause – it’s not a full sentence – the full stop goes at the very end, after the brackets.
e.g. QSuper offers different types of insurance at the time of writing (death cover, TPD cover, and IP cover).
(C) TJ Withers-Ryan, 2022. Please credit me when you share or repost, thanks!
I had to research this one myself a few years back, because I was always taught “different to” was correct, but I hear people all over the place saying “different than”, “different from”, etc.
So here we go, let’s word nerd out – here’s what the experts say about how you can use the word “different”.
Image source: icanhascheezburger.com
Is it different from, different to, or different than?
If you’re aiming to sound correct to most of the world, both “different to” or “different from” will be good. And “different than” will sound incorrect unless you are speaking specifically to an American audience.
All of the below examples are therefore correct usage according to the modern standard:
e.g. Our app works differently to our competitors’ apps, and that’s why it’s more stable than other apps.
e.g. Our ways of working are different now to what it was like before the COVID-19 pandemic.
e.g. The QSuper Lifetime investment option uses an investment strategy that’s different from our Balanced or Aggressive investment options.
Why different to and different from are both better than different than
When you Google grammar tips, add the word “Australian” or even “Oxford English Dictionary” to your search so you can get tips that are valid for Australia, rather than getting a bunch of American results that don’t apply here.
First, I took a look at what the Australian Writers’ Centre says. They said you can technically use any of three prepositions “to, from, than” with the adjective “different”.
But they did point out that “different from” is most commonly used around the world; “different to” is most common in Australia and the UK; and in the USA they also use “different than”.
For the history, apparently “different to” was the earliest version used, and before the 1700s, you could also say “different against” – but obviously we don’t say that anymore.
Today a tradesmen came to do the front door to replace the broken lock on our door. That’s right, burglars, don’t even bother trying. We’re Fort Knox, baby.
But he came to the door and my brain immediately thought, Aaaargh I forgot you were coming today. The place is a mess and I haven’t even vacuumed yet.
He was there less than half an hour to do the job and we’ll never see him again, and why would he even care what our place looks like? Gosh, what a waste of mental energy it was to stress about it.
It led me to wonder, if I’m letting my poor brain stress out this much – even momentarily – over what a total stranger thinks of me in a non-creative situation, how much am I stressing my brain out about what readers are going to think about what I write?
Have I been writing a terrible novel because I’m worried that readers aren’t going to get it?
P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) with the scriptwriter and songwriters responsible for the Disney movie version of Mary Poppins Image Source: Robert Deluce
Richard Sherman: Room here for everyone / Gather around / The constable’s “responstible”! / Now how does that sound?
P.L. Travers: No, no, no, no, no! “Responstible” is not a word!
Richard Sherman: We made it up.
P.L. Travers: Well, un-make it up.
Richard Sherman: [Hides sheet music of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.]
― Scene from Saving Mr. Banks
I edited a book once by an author who used words wrong. Just plain wrong. There’s no other way to say it.
He said “supposably” and “supposedly” (those aren’t real words!) instead of “suspiciously” (which is not even close to the meaning of those “words”).
When I called him on it the first few times, he got all snippy. “How do you know what’s a real word and what isn’t? I hear people saying ‘supposably’ all the time.”
“Um, that’s my job. I get paid to know correct grammar and spelling. And that’s honestly not a real word. And even if it was a real word now, which it’s not, it’s still not a word that a peasant would have used in medieval times.”