The Serial Comma Killer

Hey! It’s my birthday and I’m takin’ the day off! So here’s a little post from my editor friend Billie Brownell.* (And yes, kids, I, too, am a proponent of the Oxford comma. Long before the Chicago Manual of Style was even a gleam in my eye, there was Strunk and White, which also supports it. And not much more can be said than that.) Billie says …

The Serial Comma Killer

I’ve recently had to face a hard truth about the use of the serial comma. Although I love it, that love is not shared by everyone. What, you say? Yes, it’s true. Apparently there are comma-haters who have grown up in the world of the AP Stylebook (used by newspapers and others), which resists its use.

Sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma and, to a lesser extent, the Harvard comma (doesn’t it sound smarter already?), the serial comma is the use of a comma to separate all elements in a series of three or more. For example: My favorite ice cream flavors are chocolate, peach, and butter pecan.

The main reason to use the serial comma is to avoid ambiguity. And I think that’s a darn good reason. This is a (pretty) famous example making the rounds—from a newspaper story on a Merle Haggard documentary—of how the lack of the serial comma affected the reading of a sentence: “The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

On the one hand, you probably knew that Merle wasn’t married to Kris or Bob, but on the other hand, it could have been really interesting news. Had the sentence been written “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall,” it would have been more clear (though the humor value would have been lost). A good copyeditor would have recast the sentence to read, “Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, and Haggard’s two ex-wives” to avoid ambiguity altogether.

The final comma in the series adds clarity. If it were you, wouldn’t you want the serial comma? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Another post.) But it’s still a democracy, so let’s vote. Do you use the serial comma or not?

* Used with permission. An editor at Cool Springs Press, Billie can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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11 Comments

  1. Christy O says:

    I almost never use it. I would in the above example, to avoid the ambiguity. In almost all other cases, I consider it superfluous. In a list, the comma stands in for the conjunction. Where there is a conjunction, no comma is needed. So I eschew a hard-and-fast rule for the flexibility to ignore guidebooks and use punctuation as needed to make the meaning clear and/or to avoid unnecessary clutter. It’s the green in me… no waste!

    • jamiechavez says:

      Good thoughts! I like it because of the way it reads: “red…white…and blue” as opposed to (in my mind) “red…white-and-blue.” :)

  2. Beth says:

    Or maybe, the editor was havin’ a little fun. Hee.

  3. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m a former journalist, AP Stylebook girl. I can’t stand the serial comma. It looks to me like someone who’s wormed their way into the party without an invitation. Between having to use serial commas and adding ‘s to words that already end in s — well, it’s a lot to come to terms with! Or with which to come to terms.

    Now please, please don’t make me put my commas outside the parentheses.

  4. Amy Parker says:

    Always use it!

  5. Shana says:

    That means that the textbook publishers must be proponents of CMS over AP, because I think every textbook I’ve seen enforces the serial comma. I can’t make myself leave it off.

  6. Ryan says:

    Serial commas FTW.

    If it’s natural to pause at a comma and you pause at the end of stating a list…there should be a comma. Just makes sense to me.

    I look at it as a separation of items…

    “I like APPLES, BLUEBERRIES, ORANGES, and PEACHES.”

    If you say “I like APPLES, BLUEBERRIES, ORANGES and PEACHES”… in my eyes ORANGES and PEACHES become one idea.

    • jamiechavez says:

      I completely agree with your last statement — that’s exactly how it feels to me too! More importantly, though, my clients expect me to adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style, and it mandates use of the serial comma. :)