Serial Comma: Just Use It and Stop Complaining!

CommaYes, I’m going to talk about the serial comma one more time. But this is it. After this, I’ll shut up and just let the rest of you sink or swim in the writing world. But just so you know: I warned you.

(Before I continue, please note, it is the “serial comma” and not the “Oxford comma.” Why? Because we speak American around here! Oxford comma, indeed!)

There are good writers who hate the serial comma. And there are bad writers who hate the serial comma. Given that there are far more bad writers than good writers, chances are, you are a bad writer. So you need the serial comma. Using it makes your life easier. If you just use it, you will never go wrong.

So how might you go wrong? Consider, “Speaking of pale people, have you seen the vampires, Taylor Swift and her newest boyfriend?” Maybe that’s not the best example, because there is a good chance that Taylor Swift and her newest boyfriend are, in fact, vampires. But you get my meaning.

Serial Comma Examples

The same thing is happening in the three examples in the image above. They come from a tweet by Blaw:

  1. Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  2. This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  3. Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

I’m not sure if any of those is real, but the last one seems to be, given that it would be stronger without the “a” before “dildo collector.”

No Publisher Ever Gets Rid of the Serial Comma

You will occasionally hear of this or that publisher getting rid of the serial comma. This is not true. What they have done is gotten rid of the serial comma by default. So they will typeset a sentence, “The first three numbers are one, two and three.” But they will not typeset a sentence, “And then came the strippers, Dwight Eisenhower and Joseph Stalin” — unless I’m confused about 20th century history.

When a publisher decides to jettison the serial comma, it’s kind of like a make-work project for copy editors. Because this is my experience with writers: they don’t like the serial comma and they don’t know that they have to use it from time to time. Or maybe they do. The thing about professional writers is that in order to make any kind of living at all, they have to write fast. So you can see why they wouldn’t want to waste the time to type an extra character. And you can see why they really wouldn’t want to waste the time thinking about whether a sentence they just wrote said that Taylor Swift and her newest boyfriend were vampires.

A Matter of Space — We Don’t Need

So why is it that publishers make this decision? I blame The Associated Press. I think it is their effort to cut down on page space. Really! In the old days, with print newspapers, that was an issue. Any way you could save space was important. You will note that my preferred resources, The Chicago Manual of Style, does not agree with those newspaper mongers. It says:

Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler [Praise be thy name. -FM] and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity.

So that’s the thing, all you writers out there: just use the serial comma and you will be fine. But I do understand how it is hard to change. When I was writing the examples above, I always put the comma in. It’s just habit. But people can change and learn. Even writers!

3 thoughts on “Serial Comma: Just Use It and Stop Complaining!

  1. I think I get it … That’s the funny thing about learning how to write by reading, you pick up what “looks normal.” Which may be very incorrect. Again, I consider clarity more important than correctness, but it DOES come up that you’re punctuating a sentence which isn’t inherently clear (aka, Ike not being a stripper). And then correctness creates clarity.

    • Clarity is the first job of the writer and the editor. My issue with the serial comma is that it makes the writer’s life easier. It reminds me of my response to the “Why Be Normal?” bumper sticker, “Why not be normal?” (My point is that weird people don’t normally intend to be weird; it’s just who they are; the bumper sticker is calling for affect.) So my question is, “Why not use the serial comma?” Is there any good reason to not use it? I know of none. I’m sure its absence is the result of typesetters and not editors.

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