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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.

Commas in series, graphic

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)

American flag

The journalists (along with the Brits and Aussies) favor this writing:

The British flag is red, white and blue.       (without serial comma)

British flag

The Battleground

Turns out there is a long history of wordy disputes between these two deeply-rooted warring camps.  Lynn Truss, a Brit and author of TrussEats, 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 AcademicsChicago Manual of Style

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].

Though widely criticized for their simplistic approach to writing style and usage, Strunk and White post this as their number 2 ruleStrunk and White in The Elements of Style, 4th edition (2000).

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…

Others join the fray: Roy Peter Clark in his The Glamour of Grammar (2010) says this:Clark, Glamour of Grammar

…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.

casagrande4, sentencesTo seal the deal, June Casagrande, author of It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences, (2010) says:

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.

June Casagrande says in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (2006),Casagrande, Grammar Snobs

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.


Coming Soon…

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

Seial Commas and the Ghostly And


One Tired, Tarnished Writing Tip…with Six Twists


That’s It. That’s the tired tip.


Probably the most common piece of advice given to wannabe and novice writers. The advice is generic…read, read, read.

Yes, and then . . .?

What does reading do for our writing?

Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (2010), suggests this:Conroy My Reading Life

Now when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.

The unstated purposes of “read, read, read” for writers are

  •  to explore all genres of writing,
  •  to identify qualities in writing that appeal to us as readers,
  •  to emulate those fine qualities in our own writing, and
  •  ultimately, as Conroy suggests, to internalize our reading so we change and become better persons ourselves.

How can you read more, high quality writers without spending a fortune at Books-a-Million, Amazon.com, Ex Libris, or other on-line purveyors? Try these six twists based on that one tired tip.

1. Scour the new book shelves at your local library.

I walk through the swinging doors of my library in Mays Landing, NJ, a small town at the headwaters of the Egg Harbor River, and immediately face the new book shelves, right next to the BiblioCafé with its selection of teas, coffees, and snacks. Four twelve-foot long shelves showcase the newest book acquisitions—both fiction and nonfiction. A veritable storehouse of treasure.

2. Let the titles grab you.Craig Childs, Finders Keepers

Here’s one title that grabbed my attention a while ago: Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession (2010) by Craig Childs. (Okay, I admit it. I gravitate to non-fiction books.) These strong words in the title grab my attention: finder-keepers (flashback to childhood arguments with my siblings); tale (here comes a good story); plunder (who’s going to make off with the money, the jewels, the damsel in distress?); obsession (in the desert? What?) What drama. What tension. Don’t you want to know more about this?

This book is cram-packed with Childs’ exquisite writing. Look carefully.  Study his voice. Analyze his craft.

3. Read first pages.

Pick up random new books with titles that catch your eye and interest and read the first few pages while standing at the shelves. Which snippets beg you to read more? What questions pop in your mind? Don’t you want to know the answers? Would you like to write like this?

Pat Conroy in My Reading Life says,

I consider myself a small-time aficionado of first and last pages.

Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, suggests that the first five Noah Lukeman, First Five Pagespages, first five sentences even, of a manuscript can tell an editor whether he or she should pursue reading the whole book. Look at these new books and ask yourself, “What is in these first five pages that made the editor choose this book for publication.” Look for the author’s voice, ideas, art and poetic flair, of course, but also look for writing craft.

4. Follow the Trail. Request books.

The Mays Landing, NJ, our big small-town library, casts a wide net when it comes to borrowing books. I wanted to read more of Chris Child’s writing, so Librarian Sue checked and found Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water (2000) in a college library some miles away. Through inter-library Loan, I got the book the next day. Dried out water holes in a dessert? What could be more boring? But listen to the language.

An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember Craig Childs, Secret Knowledge of Waterthree things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of bluffs and boulders. The second is a tadpole worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious to me that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything out here.

Childs’ first person point of view makes this narrative personal. You can almost touch the early morning scene he describes: mom and child walking hand-in-hand to hunt for treasures obscured by years of desert dust. I not only like the description, I like the orderliness and tightness of the writing. And I like the profound concluding statement that portends surprising things to come. I want to read more.

5. Savor exquisite writing.

As you read, look for exquisite language: precise choice of words and phrases, well put-together sentences, original similes and metaphors, and surprising elements. Copy these selections into your writer’s quote notebook and decide why you like them. (You do have a personal quote book, don’t you?)

6. Mimic good writers.

When you read an exquisite selection, mimic it. You will grow as a writer. Can you write a similar scene using your own words and experiences?

William Caine, in Write Like the Masters, Emulating the Best of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, and Others, says this:William CAine, Write Like the Masters

You cannot become a terrific writer just—poof!—out of thin air. It takes something pre-existing, some structural savvy, some foundational in technique, some underlying sense of the possibilities of language before you can strip off your topcoat and tap dance across the pages like Fred Astaire.

So, yes, wannabe writers, read, read, read. Make friends with your local library and librarians. They will quickly learn your interests and suggest other good reading possibilities. Then collect words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and mimic them. Make that tired tip—read—help you become a better writer!

Something Else To Read:

Two Writing Teachers: Beginning of the Year Read Alouds This blog’s tagline: “A Meeting Place for a World of Reflective Writers.” That sounds good to me. I am not teaching now, but these ideas are still good for mature developing writers.

Don’t forget to look at children’s books. Some of them have exquisite vocabulary and sentence structure use. The TWT blog suggests read alouds to use in the classroom, but you can review these same books to see why TWT recommendsthem.

Two Writing Teachers: Setting Up the Reading Journal for a Year of Writing About Reading

TWT gives excellent suggestions for helping students keep reading logs. You have a reading log, don’t you? Reading logs are the perfect place to jot down your reflections on what you read and to copy words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that appeal to you.

 Something Else to View: How [Reading] Fiction Makes Our Brains Better

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote from a book you have read recently?


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