Use the Serial Comma

Herewith, another directive and its overlong justifications . . . as well as some loosely related rambling about architecture, big bad Victorian furniture, and Vampire Weekend.

What is the serial comma?

The serial comma, for anyone not familiar with the term, is the one you’ll often find before the last item in a series of three or more. By “item” I mean not only a thing but also a phrase or clause. I’ve just learned that in academic circles, the serial comma has also been called the Oxford comma (apparently, it’s been standard in the Oxford University Press style guide since 1905) or the Harvard comma.

The flag is red, white, and blue. [There it is, after white.]

She didn’t know whether to marry Jane, Alice, or Bob. [After or.]

He is tall and lean, uniquely handsome, and big of nose.

Joan slipped on some previously undetected cat vomit, Cassie fell through the cane seat of the old chair Joan had been meaning to fix, and their brother laughed inappropriately.

Let’s briefly look at the history of this comma, explore the debate around it, and outline why you should resolve to join those of us who use it religiously (if you don’t already). Whatever you do, be consistent and always be on the lookout for ambiguity.

Two camps, plus confused people

Whatever you call it, people have long been divided over whether to use this comma all the time. Many feel rather strongly about it, if only because they learned one way or the other and don’t care to change, while others are inconsistent (whether worriedly or blithely) in their use of it.

The latter category is no doubt large. The problem is, you see sentences punctuated both ways, the serial comma seemingly appearing at random—virtually all newspapers and some magazines do not use the serial comma, presumably to save precious space in their narrow columns, while most book publishers do. The natural result is either confusion or the assumption that you are free to do whatever strikes your fancy in the moment.

A little history

Some consider the serial comma old-fashioned. If you look at, say, a 19th-century text, you’ll probably find it teeming with commas. The 20th century brought a movement toward what’s termed “open” rather than “close” punctuation. That is, less rather than more. I’ll speculate wildly that this was part and parcel of the larger modernist movement that brought us International Style skyscrapers stripped of ornament, and furniture that was sleeker, lighter. (Remember architect Mies van der Rohe’s dictum from that era: “Less is more.”) To the modern reader, those old writings seem halting, all that punctuation cumbersome, just as Victorian furniture seems to many of us dark and heavy and overdone. In some quarters, the serial comma went out with all the others.

Err on the side of clarity

Opponents of the serial comma argue that you simply don’t need it for clarity. Sometimes that’s true. The problem is, too often the serial comma is very much needed for clarity. If your practice is to use it, you will rarely court ambiguity. If it is not, you need to be alert for the many exceptions that demand it. And don’t you have enough other stuff to keep track of when you undertake the complex task of writing?

That’s not only my conclusion but also that of many esteemed authorities and standard style guides old and new: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style (the book industry standard), Words Into Type, Edward D. Johnson’s Handbook of Good English, and Fowler’s, to name several. Notably, the AP style guide eschews it.

Opponents may argue, too, that because one of the many functions of the comma is to stand in for and, it’s redundant to use one before and in a list. However, another of its functions is to indicate a natural pause in speech. And as Johnson points out, you can actually hear the serial comma when a series is spoken aloud.

For example

Here are a few sentences that illustrate the enduring benefits of the serial comma.

Mark, Hanno and Cindy are here.

With the serial comma missing, “Mark” can be read as a noun in direct address. That is, the reader has every reason to think that a speaker is telling Mark that Cindy and Hanno have arrived, when what’s meant is that all three people have arrived.

Advocates of the serial comma include me and pretty much every other copy editor I know, Fowler and Strunk and White.

The boots came in black, brown, black and gray, tan and brown and wine.

When any of the items in the series contains a conjunction, the absence of the serial comma can mean trouble. In the first of the two sentences above, how is the average reader to know that Fowler is one item, and Strunk and White (as coauthors) the last? In the second, do the boots come in solid tan, or in tan and brown? In solid wine, or brown and wine? There’s no way to tell.

The fresh air, the taste of the wine and the dog made her forget the trouble she was in.

Without the serial comma, the reader may well take “the taste” as applying to the wine and the dog, if only for a shocked moment. I adore dogs and think they smell good (usually), but even I don’t go around tasting them except by accident.

I remember the gleam of the rain-washed pavement, the distant clatter of streetcars, the garlicky aroma wafting from the restaurant downstairs and the simple dress she wore.

That’s one of Johnson’s examples; I’m not feeling clever enough today to make up another. You see the problem: a garlic-scented dress would be memorable indeed.

Note that automatically inserting a comma before and or or can create problems too.

I framed pictures of my cats, Leonard, and Elaine.

If I framed pictures of 1) my cats, 2) someone named Leonard, and 3) someone named Elaine, this is right. But if my cats are named Leonard and Elaine—that is, what follows the comma is not a second and third item but an appositive—it’s wrong.

Vampire Weekend?

What does Vampire Weekend have to do with it? A band called Vampire Weekend charted in the UK with a song titled “Oxford Comma,” although it’s not really about punctuation. I’ve never heard it, but others have called it “damn catchy” and “an extremely enjoyable ditty.” Click here to get an “Oxford Comma” ringtone for your cell.

Addendum: I ran across a hilarious illustration of the benefits of the serial comma. Note: It’s PG-13!