In Praise of the Serial Comma

February 9th, 2006 · 6 Comments
by Booksquare

Far be it for us to name names (Jill), but there are people out there who don’t take the serial comma seriously (Jill). They see it, at best, as something redundant (Jill). They see its omission as a way to raise the blood pressure of perfectly nice people (BS). Some people see its absence as no big deal (Jill).

Like we say, we’re too classy to name names. Leaving that third or fourth comma out is failed experiment in reworking the punctuation rules — sort of like new math, whatever that was.

Brenda Coulter takes her serial commas seriously. So seriously that she points us to a entire article about the beauty and joy that is the serial comma. In a sentence, that final comma is your best friend: it makes your meaning clear.

Many times the comma may seem unnecessary because the writer may believe there is no room for confusion in the sentence. If we were to write, for example, “The table was covered with food, gifts and flowers,” the meaning would be quite clear without the serial comma. But as writers, we are usually poor judges of our own writing and may be ill suited to judge its clarity, so play it safe and use the serial comma every time.

File Under: Tools and Craft

6 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Feb 9, 2006 at 2:46 pm

    How can you even be friends with someone who willfully ignores the importance of the serial comma? This Jill strikes me as an individual who might put the toilet-paper roll on backwards, or even eat her cherry cheesecake before her broccoli and carrots! No doubt she runs with scissors and wears white shoes after Labor Day. You really ought to think more carefully, Booksquare, about the company you keep.

  • ed // Feb 9, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    Actually, while being a fan of commas in general, I’m adamantly against the Oxford comma. It’s utterly pointless and it completely insults the reader’s intelligence. It’s the only thing Strunk & White were damn wrong about. Plus, you can have a lot of fun with it, such as:

    He ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly.

    Live it up, folks. Let down your hair! The English language is malleable, baby!

  • Booksquare // Feb 9, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    Ed, you know I adore you, but the serial comma is what separates humans from cats. I know, I know, some people think it’s the opposable thumb, but it’s the comma. I have yet to see a cat punctuate anything properly. They enjoy confusing our smaller, less developed brains.

    And, yes, I have reconsidered my friendship with Jill. She hogs the bed.

  • ed // Feb 9, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    Meow, he said. He also quoted Chandler, “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive.”

  • SusanGable // Feb 10, 2006 at 7:30 am

    While I am in complete agreement with the need for the serial comma, in Jill’s sort of defense (g), I have to tell you all that the publisher Jill (and I) writes for doesn’t use it. It’s against the house style.

    Which irks me. I think it’s needed. And as I haven’t been able to retrain myself (restrain myself? LOL) from using it, my mss get turned in with the dasardly (CORRECT!) piece of punctuation. I also haven’t retrained myself to stop putting two spaces after the period when I type.

    (I do, however, think dessert before veggies is NOT a criminal act. And I do have a set way I like the TP hung in my house. LOL.)

  • Maxine // Feb 10, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Have you read “Eats, shoots and leaves” by Lyn Truss? Sounds as if you have much in common with her.
    I found out on Saturday that Kurt Vonnegut does not believe in the semi colon. It is my favourite piece of punctuation.