Friday, March 19, 2010

Why the world still needs the serial comma

I admit that I had fallen into the camp that says we don't need to use serial commas. But a recent editing job made me realize that I was on the wrong side of this argument.

Not sure what I'm talking about? Well, here's a definition from Wikipedia:
The serial comma or series comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (usually and or or, sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, a list of three countries can be punctuated as either “Portugal, Spain, and France” (with the serial comma) or as “Portugal, Spain and France” (without the serial comma).

Opinions vary among writers and editors on the usage or avoidance of the serial comma. In American English the serial comma is standard in most non-journalistic writing, which typically follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Journalists, however, usually follow the Associated Press Style Guide, which advises against it. It is less often used in British English. In many languages (e.g. French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish) the serial comma is not the norm – it may even go against punctuation rules – but it may be recommended in some cases to avoid ambiguity or to aid prosody.
As for why we still need it, consider this little gem, from a review in The Times of a documentary by Peter Ustinov:
“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."
If you like this sort of thing, you really should read the whole Wikipedia article.


Tom King said...

Okay, that was a good one. The best argument for the comma before the conjunction in a series.

I like the look of the serial comma that leaves the last one off, but I cannot deny that in the case you documented, it's essential to define the meaning of the phrase. In that case, for clarity sake, I would put the comma, the space, and the 'and' to make everything perfectly clear, concise and hygienic!

I'm just sayin'


Dave said...

I'm with you Tom. I still think lists look better without the comma before the "and" but I'll admit there are cases where it's useful. It just means that we're always better off reading what we write before we print it, right? That's certainly a lesson I've learned the hard way - and then often forgotten!