Clarity, Convenience, and the Serial Comma

Jay Ward created Hoppity Hooper, George of the Jungle and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Confused? If you didn’t know all these shows, you might think that “George of the Jungle and Rocky and Bullwinkle” somehow modify “Hoppity Hooper.” Or you might think that the three shows Jay Ward created were “Hoppity Hooper” and “George of the Jungle and Rocky” and “Bullwinkle.” All this confusion is due to the lack of the serial comma — the comma after the “and” in a series of items. Thus:

With Serial Comma: cats, dogs, and horses
Without Serial Comma: cats, dogs and horses

Yesterday on Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote about the uproar over the decision of the University of Oxford’s PR department to revise its style rules to eliminate serial commas. I’m not too upset about this, because for the last couple of decades the serial comma has fallen out of favor and many style guides have given up on it. This does not mean, however, that I agree with the decision.

From the standpoint of clarity, sometimes the serial comma is necessary and sometimes it is not. Therefore, given that it is sometimes necessary for clarity, always use it. I don’t see what is gained by destroying the serial comma, but I know why editors don’t like it. It is part of the general move to remove as much punctuation as possible. I like to use a lot of punctuation, but I fight the urge and end up using a half to a quarter of what I think is right. Really. What’s more, I don’t think the extra punctuation that I want to add would slow the reader. It would help. Punctuation helps define syntax. Those who would remove it think that sentences are clear without them. Sometimes they are — but rarely. Take that last sentence, for example: would it have meant the same thing if written, “Sometimes they are but rarely”? On first reading it, you would parse it incorrectly and then have to figure out what I meant. The way I wrote it, you get it right the first time without having to investigate the sentence like a literary Colombo.

My guiding philosophy is: make rules that make writing easier. This is why I think we should get rid of the word announce. With the serial comma, there are times when a writer must use it. Thus, why not use it all the time so you don’t have to think about whether it is required in a particular instance. Unfortunately, editors write style guidelines, not writers. This is why we Americans are stuck with totally unsupportable constructs like, “He spelled paper ‘papper.'” That period clearly does not belong to “papper.” The American quotation rules do make writing easier, but only at the expense of clarity and consistency. If we are going to do it with periods, we should do it with question marks and exclamation marks. This is a case where we shouldn’t make life easier on the writer. We should only do that when the change does not hurt the writing.

I guess the editors think they are eliminating clutter. But if they really want to remove clutter, why not get rid of all punctuation? Why not get rid of spaces? Who needs a “hot cup of tea” when the reader can figure out a “hotcupoftea”? “Really don’t you think as my friend Gerald Burns did before he died at age 59 that a hot cup of tea with or without sugar but surely with milk is better than coffee?” Perhaps not. “Really, don’t you think — as my friend Gerald Burns did, before he died at age 59 — that a hot cup of tea, with or without sugar — but surely with milk — is better than coffee?” I’m sure you can reverse engineer the first jumble of words, but you don’t have to in the second sentence because of all the directional signals (punctuation) controlling the flow of the jumble.

Oxford can do what it wants. I will continue to use the serial comma. I will continue to over-use the em-dash. The purpose of punctuation is to make the life of the reader easier. The abandonment of the serial comma does not do this. There is all down-side and no upside to this change. And the worst thing of all? This will kill Lynne Truss.[1]

[1] Actually, Truss is very liberal on this matter. She seems to think that she must justify the serial comma when she uses it. See, for example, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, pages 84-85. Lynne: I’m very disappointed with you.

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