Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior
Academics and journalists duke it out when it comes to using serial commas in sentences.
Serial commas (aka the Oxford comma and the Harvard Comma)
…come before conjunctions (most often before and, or)
…when used in a series (or list) of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in sentences.
What are the colors in the American flag? The academics write it this way:
The American flag is red, white, and blue. (with serial comma)
The journalists (along with the Brits and Aussies) favor this writing:
The British flag is red, white and blue. (without serial comma)
Turns out there is a long history of wordy disputes between these two deeply-rooted warring camps. Lynn Truss, a Brit and author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, traces the conflict back hundreds of years and advises,
Never make the mistake of getting between these two groups, especially when the beer is flowing.
Trouble raises its ugly head when an editor from each group reads the same manuscript. The comma advocate will tsk-tsk through the writer’s masterpiece compulsively jabbing commas before the conjunction where they see a series of words, phrases, or clauses in sentences. The opposing editor, equally vociferous in his tsk-tsking, goes through the manuscript slashing out the serial commas that the comma advocate so rambunctiously inserted into the manuscript.
What’s a writer to do? Which warring faction should you join? Where will you throw your lance?
The academics have some pretty hefty backers sitting in their bleachers: The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2004), Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (2000), and Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) all favor the serial comma.
Garner puts it this way:
…virtually all writing authorities outside that field [journalism] recommend keeping it [the serial comma].
In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write: red, white, and blue…
…when it comes to the serial commas, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before and in a series. I need it.
fight to the death (or at least to the pain) for the serial comma.
The Journalists, Brits, and Aussies
Two American heavies weigh in on this serial comma issue on the side of the journalists: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2002) and The Associated Press Stylebook (2010).
The Associated Press Stylebook is the authority on this subject for journalists. Here’s what it has to say:
Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.
The flag is red, white and blue.
Newspapers fight to keep that extra comma out of their text lines because they, well, take up space. They do allow for adding the comma when their might be some ambiguity. Ambiguous advice, don’t you think?
Comma Middle Ground
Lynn Truss heads for the quieter and saner middle ground in this fierce rivalry:
One shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.
Truss does admit that the
comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves…is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest.
Most people don’t know [how to use commas], so they wing it.
In fact, most people dutifully (and ignorantly) follow the old misguided adage,
Put a comma in wherever you pause to take a breath.
Pity those poor non-fluent, word-by-word, mouth-breathing readers who pause after each word as they read!
So there you have it: two opposing camps (some dodging the arrows in the comma middle ground) with strong arguments (they think) for their own staunch positions.
What’s a writer to do?
Of course, you will find all three approaches to using the serial comma as you read books, newspaper articles, and blog posts. But what should a writer do?
Simple: If you write to earn money, follow the style sheet put out by the organization that you write for.
But truth be told, I hang out with the comma advocates. I love the serial comma, and I add them physically or mentally to everything I read. I advise you to do the same. That will save me a lot of tsk-tsking when I edit your manuscript.
Finally, just remember this: If you write to your mother, just wing it. She won’t care if you have that comma in her letter or not, just write the letter. But please, please stop that mouth-breathing. It’s annoying.
Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire
Seial Commas and the Ghostly And