June 18, 2007
The Serial Comma and the Plagues of Egypt
In another blog I promised to wrestle the serial comma into abject submission. Watch and be amazed.
Many writers and grammarians and punctuationists have traditionally preferred adding a comma before the word and in a list. So, for example, they would write, “I had bananas, blueberries, and strawberries on my corn flakes this morning.” (This, of course, is not to be confused with the cereal comma.)
At InterVarsity Press, we have a general policy of not using a serial comma. Many are horrified, disgusted, shocked, dismayed, repulsed and find themselves on antidepressants as a result of this. Why have we done so?
We have adopted a general editorial philosophy of using as little punctuation as possible, such as dashes and exclamation points, but also of employing only sparingly special formatting of words, such as italics or all capital letters. The reason is twofold: (1) we want as little as possible distracting the eye or the mind of the reader from the content of the writing; and (2) such overuse can actually be a crutch for poor writing. If an author wants to emphasize something, the prose itself should do the job.
Overall this follows the general trend of English prose over the last several hundred years. Read books from the 1700s or 1800s and you’ll likely see a comma infestation that puts the frogs of Egypt to shame, with every possible thought and phrase set off by punctuation. Writers tend not to do that anymore.
But, some object, not using the serial comma can at times be confusing. And that is true. So in those cases, we allow exceptions. The fact is that using the serial comma can also create confusion. If one generally uses the serial comma, one must also allow for exceptions.
An excellent article in Wikipedia on the serial comma demonstrates that potential problems can and do arise either way. The point is that it is actually arbitrary whether one starts by generally using the serial comma or not. We have chosen to start without it (for the reasons stated above) and modify from there as necessary.
English grammar is not like the rules of Euclidean geometry, fixed and immutable. Rather the purpose of grammar is to facilitate communication. Consistency of spelling, punctuation and grammar can generally facilitate this (and make it easier on proofreaders to catch errors). But if one can communicate more effectively, powerfully and artistically by breaking the rules, the good writer will do it.
Posted by Andy Le Peau
at June 18, 2007 10:41 AM
As a general rule, the serial comma makes reading much easier, since it delineates the last item in series as one, rather than making it appear as if the last two are to be taken together. The lack of a serial comma always makes the thoughtful reader look twice because of the confusion it engenders.
Good writing uses the serial comma for the sake of clarity. Good writings needs it.
Larry, though it may be true that "good writings needs it," verbs still need to agree with their subjects :)
Yes! Pardon the exclamation point, but it's so good to find a kindred spirit in the form of an editor. Excellent post. As a community college English instructor, I receive dubious looks from students who have been drilled on the necessity of serial commas. I plead Zinsser, Strunk & White and others regarding clutter. I tell them serial commas qualify as clutter. Use them only if another instructor demands them. You've made my day. God bless.
Pick up any newspaper and you won't find the last comma in a series. It's AP style as well as IVP style.
I'd like to dedicate this response to my parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope.
Two points: a) If the AP disregard the serial comma, that's an excellent reason to insist on using it. And b) one ought to put commas where there's a natural pause in breath. A comma generally belongs in a compound sentence, e.g., when the sentence is long, but often it's unnecessary in a short sentence ("That's the issue and you know it"). Reading a list, one would almost always put a slight pause after every item; or at any rate the pause wouldn't be discernibly shorter after the penultimate item than after the other items.
One argument that a colleague raises is that we would never use a comma for just two items, so to be consistent, we would also not use the comma for those same last two items in a series. After all, the comma in "The store has peaches, apples and oranges" is really a substitution for "The store has peaches and apples and oranges." Were the store to discontinue carrying peaches, we wouldn't write, "The store has apples, and oranges." (Except for particular emphasis, which would be the exception that validates the rule.)
It's kind of like spacing after initials. We have "C. S. Lewis" rather than "C.S. Lewis" because it's Clive Staples Lewis and not CliveStaples Lewis. Likewise, to be consistent, the test case of two items in a series seems to argue against use of the serial comma.
Well, this is informative. Glad you have flexibility. Because after I read about how you killed the serial comma (um, that doesn't make IVP any kind of serial killer, right?)... well, I went through my whole manuscript and dutifully killed the commas according to your policy. Except a few. Some just pleaded for mercy. And now I see you might just grant it.
Your main premise is that good writers can break the rules. I guess so, but there should be rules and the serial comma is a good rule and should be taught. Forget AP...that is just for journalists needing to save column width. I looked on AP’s web site, and found the serial comma used on the first page I went to.
The problem with you stand is that poor writers want to break the rules. With the serial comma, they even argue that the rule is to never use it. I have clients who insist on removing it and end up with very unclear sentences.
Communication is important and grammar is part of it. My parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope agree.