Saturday, February 21, 2009

In praise of the serial comma

Call it the serial comma, the Harvard comma, or the Oxford comma. Heck, call it the University of Phoenix comma, or the College of Lifelong Learning comma. (The New Hampshire school where I finally got my degree changed its name to Granite State College halfway through my time there, but before that it actually was called the College of Lifelong Learning--I still have the sticker on my car. But that's a story for another day.) I'm not fussy about what you call it, but I am a fierce proponent of the serial comma.

In researching the serial comma, I was happy to read (in Wikipedia, which I know is accurate and reliable, because it says so right here, in Wikipedia) that "most authorities on American English recommend its use."

However, most style guides for journalists (of which I am now one, albeit employed by a weekly newspaper with somewhat relaxed standards, whose editor is just happy I don't habitually write things like "the game was effected by the rain" and "the twelve day's of Christmas"), including the AP Style Guide, which I'm supposed to use, favor omitting the serial comma.

One reference says this approach is probably a matter of wanting to conserve space in newspapers. If so, I think it's time to let this one go. Believe me, the newspaper industry has a whole lot of more worrisome things to think about at the moment than how much valuable space is being taken up by a few commas they deem unnecessary.

Part of the reason I'm so adamant about the use of the serial comma is that I hear that comma in spoken language, and whenever I read something in which the serial comma is omitted, I have a little hiccup in my head. If I read that the colors of the American flag are "red, white and blue," I hear "red, white-and-blue."

Another reason is that use of the serial comma, in most cases, helps to avoid ambiguity. (Yes, I'll concede that there are occasional times when using it actually leads to ambiguity, but this is my blog and I'm not going to talk about that, except to say that the aforementioned Wikipedia entry has an amusing little section concerning the phrase "Betty, a maid, and a rabbit" vs. "Betty, a maid and a rabbit.")

For example, suppose I want to make some homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner, but I've discovered that I've run out of a few key ingredients. I'm rushing off to work in the morning, and my husband will get home before I do. If I were not an advocate of the serial comma, I might leave him a note that says, "If you happen to go to town this afternoon, please pick up milk, butter, macaroni and cheese."

There's only about a 50-50 chance that (assuming he does go to town) he will come home with the four items I thought I wrote in my note, and an equally good chance that we'll be eating Kraft macaroni-and-cheese-from-a-box for dinner. You see the problem?

If you still don't believe omitting the serial comma can lead to big trouble, consider this hypothetical book dedication cited by the Chicago Manual of Style: "With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope." Yikes! The Catholic church has enough scandals these days without being dragged into another simply for lack of a serial comma!

Sadly, it seems that more and more editors and publishers of books, not just newspapers and magazines, are choosing to omit the serial comma or, worse, to ignore a lack of consistency regarding its use throughout a single work. Yes, I know I can be obsessive when it comes to grammar, but I can honestly say that the increasing omission of the serial comma is having a negative effect on my enjoyment of reading.

So I'd like to thank a blogger (and fellow serial-comma aficionado) called The Laughorist for his truly excellent post, "Let's Stop Serial-Comma Killing Now!"

Commas, in general, can be tricky things. (On one website I read the intriguing suggestion that a college student who wishes to become a better writer should pay a deposit of $5 for each comma in his paper or essay, and ask his English professor to return the deposit for each comma that is used correctly--excellent incentive for getting it right.)

I'll leave you all with a quote from Oscar Wilde:

"I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."

You and me both, Oscar.

PS: I know there are probably some of you reading this and thinking, she really needs more in her life than obsession over the serial comma (especially if you happen to take note of the fact that this was posted rather early on a Saturday morning). Well, for your information, the only reason I'm blogging this morning is that I got up at 4:30 to make rolls that were requested for a church supper by my dear sister-in-law, so I've had plenty of time to spend on the computer while they were rising and baking. So there.

Boy, do they smell good! Admit it: you wish you were here. (Oh, and that fire extinguisher in the background? It is in no way meant as a comment on my competence in the kitchen.)


  1. What's all this about cereal comas? I usually start my morning with a cup of coffee and an english muffin just to avoid that sort of thing.

  2. I would get up at 4:00 and be at your house at 4:30 for some of those rolls. They look tastier than that other cereal you were talking about.

  3. A: Those rolls look fabulous and I would seriously hike up to Maine right now if it weren't for that pesky little job thing.

    B: Bless you for alerting the world to the important issues of our time. I was the queen of serial commas in college and would often get harassed by my "peer editors" for them. I ditched those Negative Nancies PDQ.


  4. Good to find another grammar queen. I didn't know this about you. I put them into co-workers' writings all day as I remove the incorrect apostrophes. One co-worker is actually starting to correctly use the serial comma. Oh God, there is a God!