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Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and the Ghostly And

In previous posts, Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior and Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire, we learned: use a comma before the conjunction and in a series (list) of three or more grammatically similar words, phrases, or clauses (even though journalists, Brits, and Aussies do not follow this convention). And remember to check the style guidelines of the publishers for whom you write to see which way they want you to use the serial comma.

The classic example using the serial comma before the conjunction:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

American flag

But you know writers. They like to mix it up a bit. Once they master this basic rule of using a comma and conjunction in a series (list), they proceed to make variations on the rule.

One Variation: The Ghostly and.

Instead of using a final conjunction before the last element in the series (list), the writer simply drops the conjunction and.Death Warmed Over

Eliminating the and in a series in a sentence can be an effective style choice. Let’s go back to the Unnatural Quarter and see what Zombie Private Investigator, Dan Shamble is investigating now. (Kevin J. Anderson, Death Warmed Over, 2012)

List of Nouns and Noun Phrases with the Ghostly and

Note: The parentheses indicate the placement of the ghostly and.

I look pretty good for a dead guy, or so I’ve been told:
well-trimmed dark hair,
striking eyes accentuated by bold eyebrows, (    )
just the right amount of “rugged.”

I like the bustle and little distracting noises around the office:
the ringing phone,
the slam of file-cabinet drawers, (    )
the clacking of a keyboard as Sheyenne’s ghost types up reports.

In the back room of the flat, behind a closed door, I could hear
a whimper,
muffled screams, (    )
the sounds of a struggle.

List of Verb Phrases with the Ghostly and

The ghostly and with a series of verb phrases builds tension in the story.

I spotted the silhouette of a large hairy form
loping among the graves,
sniffing the ground, (     )
coming closer.

Without me in the office Robin threw herself back into her cases,
filing more briefs and appeals,
appearing in court, (     )
speaking with fiery vehemence on behalf of her clients.

List of Independent Clauses (complete sentences in a series) with the ghostly and

Businesses sprang up that catered to the specialized clientele:
Commercial blood drives commissioned fresh supplies for vampire customers;
processing plants developed seasonings and treatments to make chicken “taste just like human”; (     )
restaurants and bars served the proper food choices.

In order to live peacefully together, unnaturals had learned to control their base urges and get along with one another…
Werewolves no longer killed human victims each full moon,
vampires gave up drinking all but voluntarily donated blood, (    )
zombies and ghouls foreswore eating human flesh.

The Fragmented Spirit: The Serial and, the Ghostly and, and the First Word of Sentence and.

Why not throw in another way to use the word and in a sentence (or not)?

Our grammar school teachers frowned when we innocently began sentences with a capitalized And. But writers nowadays regularly use that capitalized And to begin sentences, thumbing their noses at their grade-school teachers, I guess.

In this next example, Kevin J. Anderson throws in three different ways to use the word and:

  1. the compound sentence and,
  2. the ghostly and,
  3. and the first word of sentence And.

I’m dead, for starters—it happens.
But I’m still ambulatory, and I can still think, (     ) still be a contributing member of society (such as it is, these days).
And still solve crimes.

Thank goodness for P. I. Shamble. What would this world be like if all those zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and other assorted created had no legal assistance to solve their life’s problems?

Restless unnaturals instead of placated unnaturals? Let’s not go there! Keep up the good word, Shamble. In the meantime, the rest of us may borrow some of your writing stylistics using the conjunction and.

(Note: While zombie books are not especially a favorite of mine, I do believe it is important to read widely across all genres. Sometimes we can learn new things when reading in a genre that is not familiar to us. And, these books are funny!)

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

 

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