Nerd moments: The mysterious comma (updated)

After a three and a half month blogging hiatus, my first post back is about APA? Welcome to my life.

It is worth noting, however, that the comma is quite the controversial piece of punctuation… battles have been fought over the placement and function of the comma. Go figure. 🙂 

After arguing with a student that a few notable APA helps websites have it wrong, I finally checked in APA’s 6th edition for this.

Author, X.Y., & Author, A, B. (Year). Title. New York City, NY: Publishing Company.

See it? Yup… the extra comma after the first author’s initials. Now this doesn’t make any sense to me. Why put a comma there? Are you separating the initial from the ampersand? But there’s a period there that has the dual function of separating the characters and acting as a period for the initial. Is it because there is more than one name? But again, that doesn’t make sense – you only use a comma in a list of more than two. After mulling this over in my office, I decided to send an email off to APAstyle.

Here’s the email….

To Whom It May Concern:

I had a quick question about referencing in APA 6. I was wondering – when you have two authors (not three or more), the first author’s first initials are followed by a comma and then the ampersand (2010, p.176). It seems too that sites that summarize APA 6 usage also find this comma confusing – since some of them adopt and model it, and some don’t. To be honest, I thought this was a mistake when I saw this on some writing center websites and decided to check the veritable book itself.

Grammatically this doesn’t make sense since you don’t use a comma to separate two items in sequence – the and (or ampersand) is sufficient.

Typographically this doesn’t make sense, since it adds an extra text when the move is towards less frequent comma use.

Not that I stay awake at nights thinking about this extra comma, but the institution I teach at uses APA 6. And I find it hard to explain to students why that extra comma is here (since again, this comma does not seem to serve any function).

Any information regarding this would be much appreciated.


Newbie Academic


Let’s see if I get a response… 🙂


Wow – impressive… same day response…

Dear Newbie Academic,

The comma is there to set off the initials from the ampersand. It may help to think of it as analogous to the comma that sets off the year in the sentence “On May 14, 2011, the committee met for the first time.”

It would be a mistake to attempt to apply the rules of sentence punctuation to a reference entry; they are governed by style, not grammar. APA Style requires the comma you noted after the author’s initials. Other styles don’t.

As with the serial comma, many arguments can be adduced for and against this usage, but in the end the issue is neither a moral nor a grammatical one.

Hope this helps,

Editorial Supervisor
APA Journals


2 thoughts on “Nerd moments: The mysterious comma (updated)

  1. Oh man, this post is so nerdy. 😛 I’m a comma freak too (go Oxford comma!) but I draw the line at blogging about it. 🙂

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