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Home > Publications > Quill > Seriously, It’s Time to Get Serious About The Serial Comma (And Other Style Gripes)



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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
Seriously, It’s Time to Get Serious About The Serial Comma (And Other Style Gripes)

It’s not about the punctuation as much as the nature of people to stick to what they favor

By Scott Leadingham

Two spaces after a period. Always.

Apostrophe after possessive words ending in “s,” not just plural possessives (e.g. Angus’ watch).

State abbreviations according to AP Style, not postal codes.

Why do we follow these conventions? For those who use the AP Stylebook, it’s a given that we’re bound by what the Stylebook editors – and newsrooms’ individual style – dictate.

The thinking goes that with a standardized set of rules, there is no confusion over how to interpret a word or comma or apostrophe.

But anyone who’s been in journalism for more than, oh, a day, knows style rules are hardly standardized across the industry. AP Style may dictate one thing, while the Chicago Manual of Style may say another. And New York Times’ internal house style? Yeah, about that…

It turns out, asking journalists what their style/usage pet peeves are is a great way to foster engagement and feedback – not to mention invoke righteous indignation (something journalists have in spades). We did that recently by asking on Twitter and Facebook what people’s style pet peeves are. Some highlights:

- @kiphillreporter: Impact vs. affect, and cellphone (one word? really?).

- @kimbui: Toward. Not Towards. Kills me every time.

- @carlie_kollath: My #jpeeve examples: First annual events. Commas or periods outside quotes ("I love peas", she said).

And from Facebook:

- Patricia Lee: Who came up with "went missing"? There was something wrong with "disappeared"? When I read "went missing", the rest of the story is a blur. I cannot get past that horrible abomination.

(Note use of comma outside of quotation marks in “went missing.” Don’t tell @carlie_kollath.)

- Vanessa Villarreal: The federal government uses so many acronyms - it drives me nuts. Plus, most employees believe that the words "nation" and "government" and "president" (standing alone) should be in caps. (Not according to AP Stylebook!!) And don't get me started on military titles and second references!

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark fanned the flames of the Oxford (serial) vs. no Oxford comma “debate” (if that’s the right word) in a recent column on Poynter.org, saying AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma.

An unscientific poll accompanying Clark’s piece suggests the majority of journalists agree. Of 3,500 responses, 71 percent said the Oxford comma was necessary.

Hello, AP Stylebook. Anyone home?

Following is a take from Paula LaRocque, Quill’s own grammar and language maven. She agrees that the Oxford (serial) comma is necessary. For what it’s worth, Quill and SPJ follow AP Style (generally, with some in-house exceptions), including not using the Oxford comma. But maybe that will change. I actually agree that the Oxford comma is better in all writing – journalistic or otherwise.

What do you think? Should the AP Stylebook (and Quill) update its rule on the oft-left out comma? What other style rules do you dislike? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #jpeeve. You may not ever see the rules changes, but at least you’ll take solace in knowing your grievance has been aired for the world to see and hear. And, really, isn’t that half the battle?

Excerpted from “The Book on Writing” by Paula LaRocque. Used by permission.

Restoring The Serial Comma

By Paula LaRocque

A common myth is that there’s something wrong with the serial or “Oxford” comma – that is, the comma before and or orin a list. That myth is especially prevalent among media writers, most of whom use the Associated Press Stylebook. That stylebook may have unwittingly contributed to the confusion by saying it’s OK to omit the serial comma in a simple list: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. But AP style also demands the serial comma when the series is complex, or when the last two items run together ambiguously, or when an item in the list contains a comma. Examples:

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 attitude.

I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The gist of the AP guideline is that we should retain the serial comma in all but the simplest and shortest list, and it does not say that the serial comma is wrong in any case. But that’s not the way the guideline has been assimilated. Instead, some writers have concluded — entirely without support — that the serial comma is wrong and should be deleted. But it’s not wrong, and no accepted authority would say that it is.

Interestingly, even those who would in some cases delete the serial comma require in all cases the serial semi-colon— an even heavier separator than the comma. That doesn’t make sense, and such inconsistencies point to a style practice that causes more trouble than it’s worth. And it isn’t worth anything. Omitting the serial comma destroys parallel balance, forces writers to decide whether this is one of those times when the serial comma is optional, and often muddies meaning.

Writing authorities agree that the serial comma should be retained in all cases. Here are excerpts from experts:

In their revered “Elements of Style,” William Strunk and E.B. White write that in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, commas should separate the terms, including before the conjunction. Examples: Red, white, and blue. Gold, silver, or copper. He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

From “Modern English Usage,” H.W. Fowler: “Where more than two words or phrases or groupings occur together in a sequence, a comma should precede the and . . . . The ‘Oxford’ comma is frequently, but in my view, unwisely, omitted by many.”

From The Chicago Manual of Style: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction. Examples: Attending the conference were Farmer, Johnson, and Kendrick. We have a choice of copper, silver, or gold. The owner, the agent, and the tenant were having an acrimonious discussion.

The Chicago Manual adds that in a “series of short independent clauses, the last two of which are joined by a conjunction, a comma should be placed between the clauses and before the conjunction. Example: Harris presented the proposal to the governor, the governor discussed it with the senator, and the senator made an appointment with the president.”

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “Commas separate words in a series (a horse, a dog, and a cow); note that American English prefers and many editors require the comma after dog

Modern American Usage, Wilson Follet, et. al.: This entry is five pages long, with many examples showing the resulting confusion of omitting serial commas. An excerpt:

“A widely parroted dictum is supposed to settle the issue: If you have the conjunction, you don’t need the comma. That is bad reasoning or no reasoning at all. A conjunction is a connective device, as its name announces; whereas a mark of punctuation is nothing if not separative. To insist that the first perform the duty of the second is like prescribing sand in the bearings . . . . It is implicit in the standard form of a series that when you write red, white, and blue, you mean red and white and blue — three equal terms. . . . The recommendation here is to use the comma between allmembers of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances.”

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate dictionary: A comma “separates words, phrases, or clauses in series: He was young, eager, and restless. It requires one to travel constantly, to have no private life, and to need no income other than living expenses.” Webster’s New World (The Associated Press’ dictionary of choice): A comma is used to “separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series: The menu offered the usual choices of steak, chops, and chicken. Expect it tomorrow, next Monday, or a week from today. If you study hard, concentrate, and take your time, you are sure to pass.” The New World notes that some writers omit this series comma, but that it is useful in preventing ambiguities.

The U.S. Government Printing Office’s Manual of Style insists on commas in series before and, or, or nor — no exceptions.

The Modern Language Association’s “Line by Line,” by Claire Cook: “In a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses in which a conjunction precedes only the final item, a comma should follow every item . . . . For example: On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged. The agency lists openings in publishing, broadcasting, advertising, and public relations.

The McGraw-Hill Style Manual: “A comma is needed for clarity before and or or in a series of three or more items.”

The Dictionary of Modern America Usage, Bryan Garner: A comma “separates items (including the last from the next-to-last) in a list of more than two — e.g.: ‘The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons.’ Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”

The Copy Editor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn: “Use commas to separate the items in a list or series: Bring your books, pens, and pencils. A driver’s license, passport, or other official photo ID must be shown to the clerk.

Shipley’s Style Guide for the Workplace: “A comma separates the last two items in a series although these items are linked by a conjunction . . . . This comma was once considered optional, but the trend is to make it mandatory, especially in technical and business English. Leaving it out can cause confusion and misinterpretation.”

All of that may seem overkill. But it substantiates my claim that experts unanimously recommend the use of the serial comma.

Why do some writers hang onto a practice that the rest of the literate world either never heard of or rejects? Habit and tradition. Nothing else, and nothing better. (A newsroom copy editor actually told me it was to save space. Please. Prune one redundancy, delete one unnecessary word — we’d make enough room for a handful of serial commas.) For clarity, balance, and beauty, restore the serial comma to your work. There was never good reason to omit it.

Paula LaRocque is author of three books on language and writing and the former writing coach for the Dallas Morning News. Her “Words & Language” column appears regularly in Quill.

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