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Let’s Debate the ‘Serial Comma’—Again

I honed my craft on the Associated Press Style Guide, and AP says not to put a comma before the “and” in a simple series. Academic style guides and the revered Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White prefer that you do.

I think AP is right on, and for better reasons than that I got to know Rene Capon, the savvy AP editor who wrote a delicious little book about writing called “The Word.” He was a no-serial-comma kind of guy.

The Chicago Manual of Style argues that use of the serial comma reduces confusion, which indeed it does in the examples cited here (15th edition, University of Chicago Press, 2003), paragraph 6.19:

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma ... should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage....

• "She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president."
• "I want no ifs, ands, or buts."
• "The meal consisted of soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese."

But AP has all that covered. Here’s AP’s direction when things get more complicated than a simple series, from the current edition, page 325:

“Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

Wikipedia has a dynamite discussion of all this, with examples that show confusion both in leaving the comma out and arbitrarily putting it in. Here’s Wikipedia’s example of ambiguity caused by the forced use of the serial comma:

An example would be a book dedication reading:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

The serial comma after Ayn Rand creates ambiguity about the writer's mother, because the proper-noun phrase Ayn Rand could be read as in apposition to my mother (with the commas fulfilling a parenthetical function), resulting in the interpretation "To my mother (who is Ayn Rand) and to God." Without a serial comma this would read:

To my mother, Ayn Rand and God

AP and others have figured out that it’s really not a matter of always doing one or the other. It’s a matter of exercising good judgment on what best serves the reader given the circumstances. If you’ve already got the “and” in the simple series, the comma is redundant. On the other hand, if you need a comma to avoid confusion where things are more complicated, by all means put it in.

I think many writers and publishers prefer the serial comma—which is sometimes called the “Oxford comma” or the “Harvard comma”—because they think it displays academic correctness. This reminds me of those who write “which” when they should use “that” with a dependent clause. They do it because they think it looks educated. I think it looks pretentious.

What do you think? 



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