February 6

Dreaded Commas

Editors often say their clients must use a comma shaker on their paper. Imagine a huge pepper container, full of commas, and you just hold it over your paper and shake out some commas, letting them fall wherever they want, willy nilly.

By far, the most comma confusion surrounds a list of three or more words.

How would you write the following sentence?
1. I'm afraid of lions, tigers, and bears.
2. I'm afraid of lions, tigers and bears.

The first example uses the “serial comma,” also known as the “Oxford comma.”
Basically, every major academic style guide uses the serial comma. Just take a look at the following list of style guides that use the serial comma:

Oxford University Press (hence the alternate name)
Blue Book

So, why is there even a question about whether to use the serial comma?

Journalists, they're the culprits.

The only style guide that recommends against the serial comma is the AP, Associated Press, which all journalists follow. The idea is that the serial comma is often a waste of space.

Still, even then, the New York Times recommends only omitting the serial comma when the meaning is unambiguous, but including the serial comma when it could provide clarity.

So, what's this editor's advice?

Save yourself the headache of trying to figure out whether that last comma is a “waste of space.” Don't waste any energy thinking about it, just put it in and move on with your writing. If you're writing for the NYT, the copy editor will remove it for you anyway.

It's true that the British are also more likely to remove the serial comma. So, if you're British… well, I'd still say put in the serial comma and let your editor remove if s/he really prefers.

There is one exception.

If you live in Northern Ireland and work for the Environmental Secretary, you should consider omitting the serial comma because your boss, Owen Patterson, apparently has a personal vendetta against anyone who uses the serial comma.

Okay, one more exception.

If you're a fiction writer, goody for you because you get to break grammar rules for the sake of art. Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is always a good example. His original final stanza is as follows: (Try reading it out loud.)

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

Rumor has it that Frost's editor made the atrocious mistake of inserting the serial comma in the first run and completely ruining the stanza's pace. (Try reading it out loud with a serial comma in the first line.) Frost made him re-print.

So, fiction writers, unless your publisher has a strict style guide, you'll get to choose. Choose wisely and consistently, though, not with a comma shaker.

Clearly, some people care a lot about the serial (or “Oxford”) comma.

Look at this kid in his youtube video below. He's kind of nuts and kind of hilarious. If only we all had so much passion in life.

What about you?

This is a rather serious debate, after all. Serial comma or no serial comma?


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