On Grammar, Punctuation, and Serial Commas

Commas

Dear Editor

Yes, you personally! Stop messing with my Serial commas, or my Oxford commas, or my Harvard commas, or my Series commas or however else you wish to refer to that punctuation mark I placed before the “and” at the end of a series. I do know quite well that you are philosophically opposed to them, but there are good reasons why I keep putting them in anyway – I mean apart from my sadistic compulsion to make your job miserable or to cleverly distract you from focusing on actual flaws in my manuscript.

Believe me I do sympathize with the visceral pain of abandoning a proofreading rule that was drilled into you back in Editing 101. After all, the AP Stylebook banned it for all eternity. But that journalism convention is now an archaic remnant of the olden days when every character had to be manually typeset on the printed page and every “excess” character that could be eliminated meant less typesetting effort, faster time to print, and greater profits. But that is no longer a concern today, and there is no longer any need to continue to sacrifice clarity and precision in order to avoid the manual placement of another comma.

And make no mistake; any writing that abandons the correct use of the serial comma is far less precise. For example, if I craft the following sentence…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea, and spice.

I intend this to clearly communicate that four separate shipments were received. If you automatically remove my serial comma as follows…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea and spice.

You have materially undermined my intent. Does this sentence now communicate clearly that four shipments were received or might it have been only three? The reader can no longer be sure. By automatically removing all of my serial commas, you have reduced the richness of information, lowered precision, created ambiguity, and even introduced an error.

And depending on the context and purpose of the statement, it might really, really matter whether four shipments were received instead of only three. You would not willy-nilly delete “unnecessary” parentheses from a mathematics equation, so why would you effectively do the same with my precisely punctuated prose?

Deletion of the serial comma is especially egregious to anyone with a math, science, legal, or computer programming background. We are trained to be as clear and unambiguous in our writing as possible. But when you are editing any work, let alone a scientific paper or technical manual, you probably do not have the subject matter expertise to determine if and how you might be changing the precise meaning that the author has communicated by including or omitting a serial comma.

Even in fiction and non-technical writing, a smart author uses the serial comma in a smart manner. Not only to indicate non-grouping of the final items in the series, but to establish style. I read all my writing out loud, especially dialog, to get just the right, natural-sounding cadence from the character’s unique voice. Sometimes that calls for a comma to make it sound or read the way I intend. When you remove that carefully crafted comma, you undermine not only the meaning, but also the artistic voice of the author. That frankly violates what should be your most sacred prime directive as an editor – do no harm.

Editors: Get over what you were taught about serial commas. Even the AP Stylebook endorses its use when it enhances clarity. But more importantly, trust the author to appropriately express subtleties of meaning and style through their careful use of the serial comma. Unless they obviously misuse it, like if they include it when they really intended the final two items to be grouped, or vice versa, don’t presume that you fully understand how the comma might alter the intent and meaning of the text.

Authors: Don’t be bullied into following some archaic rule of grammar here, but do be consistent. Use the serial comma if the final two items are ungrouped; exclude it if they are grouped. And if it makes no difference, use it artistically to express nuances of cadence or style.

And to both of you, take heart. You are not out on a limb here. If your literary competency is questioned, you can simply refer your critic to the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Guide, and many other institutions who all endorse consistent use of the serial comma. Proof by authority is all some people will accept.

But if that isn’t enough to sufficiently pacify the stubborn stickler regarding the serial commas included by you, cite starting conjunctions, split infinitives, passive verbs, and ending prepositions as other outmoded grammatical proscriptions that should no longer be mindlessly adhered to.

Sincerely, Author

P.S. Further reading can be found in this post on Tin House.

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5 thoughts on “On Grammar, Punctuation, and Serial Commas

  1. Jane Everhart

    Hi Tyson! I’m so glad you brought this topic up! I love comma fights even more than I love snowball fights! I just want to say that it would be awful for me if you stopped putting in the comma before the “and” in the mss’s you often send to me. The reason? It would give me nothing to do. The rest of the mss is usually in such pristine shape that I cannot earn my keep as an editor if I don’t do something. So each month I scour the mss for the offending serial comma and–voila!–there it is! I deftly put my delete circle around it and figure I have done my good editorial deed for the month. But wait. What about headlines! I am awaiting with bated breath for your critique of my headline misdemeanors!

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  2. Jane Everhart

    A further word in defense of eliminating the final comma in a series–that is, the comma before the “and.”
    I come from the world of Journalism. I have been trained in newspaper style, particularly the New York Times style, which I have come to prefer to the unwieldy Chicago Style. But, after working on several newspapers and many magazines for more years than I care to enumerate, I became a freelance writer/journalist, accepting writing assignments from lots of different magazines. Here’s the thing about being a freelance writer: The publication that contracted with you for the article pays you after they have approved and accepted the article. Then your article belongs to them. They can do with it what they like. They can even not publish it if they like. They can change anything in it to suit themselves. They own it. Its their property. I have seen published articles of mine where I didn’t recognize the first paragraph, the editor had changed it so much. (I was furious, but I had cashed the check.) I was furious because I thought my lead paragraph was better. But that’s like complaining when the guy who bought your used Toyota has painted it red. You have no right to complain about the Toyota’s new color; it no longer belongs to you.
    Anyway, that’s the kind of mind set I come from. It’s all based on petty bourgeois capitalist ownership of the means of publishing. It’s a little different when you write for a non-profit and do not get paid for your article. You, as a writer, have a lot more power in that situation. However, you presumably get something out of writing for free for that publication: You get to advance your cause, you get your name known, you get prestige within that particular non-profit community, you publicize your other other published works. You may even make a profit on your volunteer writing if it leads to your selling more books. So there is a plus to going along with the decisions of the editor of the non-profit’s publication, even if s/he is a nutcase, even if there is no check to be cashed. I would say that going along with the non-profit editor’s edits would depend, for me, on (1) how serious they were, (2) how extensive they were, (3) how annoying they were or (4) how arguable they were. A comma? Meh. Let the editor have it. It’s a small price to pay to keep peace in the family. There are bigger battles we need to fight. Take, for instance, the over-use of the exclamation point. Now, there’s a battle I can sink my teeth into!

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