12 November 2011

When the Grammar Cops Comma Calling



by John M. Floyd




Consider the following two statements:

1. The frustrated mother says, "Eat that cereal, period."

2. The frustrated writing instructor says, "Use that serial comma."

In my opinion, both are good advice.

A serial comma, for those who don't already know this, is the comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, etc.) that precedes the final item in list of three or more items. Example: the comma after Dick in every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Some writers always use it and some never use it, and I know a few who go back and forth. Personally, I like the serial comma, for one reason: it can prevent misunderstanding.

Here's what I mean. A writer friend suggested this sentence to me the other day, as an example:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear. It refers to four people.

Now consider what happens when you leave out the serial comma:

Attendees at the event included two hookers, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. That's pretty clear too, except that it now seems to refer to only two people. I doubt Diane and Barbara would be pleased with that version.

Here's another example:

Every morning I have orange juice, bacon and eggs and toast.

There's nothing wrong with that, but the writer is probably thinking of three separate "items" rather than four. A serial comma after eggs would clarify the sentence--and the extra pause would probably change the way it sounds when spoken.

The clarity issue doesn't come up often. In The road was hot, dry and dusty, leaving out the serial comma doesn't hurt the sentence or our understanding of it. To be truthful, I'm one of those people who use too many commas anyway--I've been trying to cut back a bit. Unneeded commas tend to slow things down, and we all want sentences to flow well and sound right. But I can't help myself: I like serial commas.

What's the official position? Both The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style say the serial comma should be standard usage, but I believe the AP Stylebook discourages it. This goes along with the fact that writers of fiction and most nonfiction seem to favor the serial comma but journalists don't. It's my understanding that the British, by the way, almost never use it.

But the serial comma remains an interesting subject, if only because of the fact that it is optional. I never object when my writing students don't use it in the class stories that I critique and edit. I just tell them the advantages and disadvantages and let them make up their own minds. I myself will continue to use it, though, because that way I don't ever have to worry about whether there's a clarity problem in one of my sentences. (Or at least a clarity problem caused by the lack of a comma.) As my fellow southerner Forrest Gump would say, that's one less thang.

So . . . what will you do, if the Punctuation Police start banging on your door at three in the morning? When they whip out a manuscript page and point a flashlight at it, will you confess to being a user or an abstainer? Or maybe a commakaze?

Seriously, what do you think of serial commas? Are you for or against?

As I implied in a recent column, different strokes for different folks. Or, in the much wiser words of Kinky Friedman, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beer holder."

15 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

I am a pro-serialist. I seem to recall James Thurber in The Years with Ross arguing against its use in the phrase "red, white, and blue, " saying that it furled the flag. Ross replied "write a piece on it and i will print it that way - in the piece.". Or so says my memory.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm for it, though I call it the penultimate serial comma--the one after the next to last item in the series. I also like its friend, the comma separating two independent clauses. I wish today's copy editors felt the same. On my first mystery with a major publisher, one of them deleted every one of those commas and added them before all the dependent clauses. She changed:
She deleted them in the right place and added them in the wrong place.
to:
She deleted them in the right place, and added them in the wrong place.
and:
She deleted them in the right place, and she added them in the wrong place.
to:
She deleted them in the right place and she added them in the wrong place.
I was furious enough to stet, shoot, and leave.

Dale Andrews said...

Accord here! As you note, understanding and how it sounds seem to me key. If you read the sentence out loud and there is a pause required in order to convey the correct meaning the author owes a comma to the reader to ensure that the pause is there when the sentence is read. Most of my editing over the years has been legal briefs, but I always told attorneys who worked under me, and who had writing "challenges," to read the brief out loud before finalizing it. That's when you find those things that just don't work!

Neil Schofield said...

John - fascinating stuff. As a Brit, I would use the serial comma when it makes the sense clear.
I would say: "The people were waving flags coloured red white and blue" when I wanted to say that the flags were multicoloured - or multicolored if you prefer.
I would say:" The people were waving flags coloured red, white, and blue" - with a caveat on the second comma - when I wanted to say that the flags were all differently coloured.
I think it comes down to common sense in the end.
This is one that will run and run.
If this comment appears twice, I will kill myself. Twice.

Neil Schofield said...

John - fascinating stuff. As a Brit, I would use the serial comma when it makes the sense clear.
I would say: "The people were waving flags coloured red white and blue" when I wanted to say that the flags were multicoloured - or multicolored if you prefer.
I would say:" The people were waving flags coloured red, white, and blue" - with a caveat on the second comma - when I wanted to say that the flags were all differently coloured.
I think it comes down to common sense in the end.
This is one that will run and run.

David Dean said...

John, I am in the comma camp. In fact, I may the reason that serial comma killer exists in the first place: He grew so tired, and angry, at all the commas he had to climb over, in my writings, that he went off, the deep end.

I agree completely with Dale about the read-aloud proofing. If it sounds wrong when spoken, then it probably is wrong as written.

John Floyd said...

Rob, I've heard that Ross and Thurber indeed represented the two extremes on comma use. Lynne Truss says in Eats, Shoots, and Leaves that "Ross thought there was no limit to the amount of clarification you could achieve if you just kept adding commas." And Liz, editors are always either taking out my commas or inserting them where I think they aren't needed. Maybe, as with apostrophes, they're making sure everything balances out. It was also Truss who said, "For every apostrophe omitted from an it's, there is an extra one put into an its. Thus the number of apostrophes in circulation remains constant." I swear I love that book. (Should I have put a comma after swear??)

John Floyd said...

Dale (and David), the reading-aloud rule is so true. My "bacon and eggs" example sounds completely different when read with and without the serial comma, all because of that one little pause. One way sounds right, the other doesn't.

Neil, good point! It's great to get a British take on this subject. And you're right: comma sense is usually just common sense. Problem is, I sometimes don't have much of either.

Dixon Hill said...

John, I really liked this.

I still hold a minor grudge for being dinged when I added a serial comma to a sentence (or failed to strike it out; I don’t recall which) on the entrance exam I took for admission to the Cronkite School – where, of course, we were taught to follow AP style. I found the school’s “Death to commas” attitude slightly amusing, given the fact that Walter Cronkite (for whom the college is named) was a guy who seemed to virtually speak in commas.

As a comma-addict, myself, I am grateful to know a woman who hates commas, and send all my stuff to her for ‘comma stripping’ (which has always sounded dirty to me). Even then, I love them too much to cut every comma she suggests, particularly when I want a character to sound laconic. (I thought of taking a tip from you and amending this word to ‘lacommac,’ but decided that might make it sound as if he’s a French stand-up comedian.)

Thanks for the great article!

Your brother comma-lover,
Dix

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Dix -- I liked your observation about "speaking" in commas, because some folks actually seem to do that--I guess it has to do with the frequency of pauses. etc. And yep, newspaper folks like to leave out the serial comma, but I'm still a little surprised that the Cronkite School made that big a deal of it.

The biggest (and only, I guess) problem I have with commas is that too many of them do slow things down, and I find that happening sometimes in my writing. In the last couple years I've tried hard to go back through my stories just before submitting them and make sure I haven't committed that sin. But I do think too few can be far worse than too many. And don't even get me started on the misuse of apostrophes, or the overuse of exclamation points (!!).

Louis A. Willis said...

John, I favor the serial comma because I too am a comma addict. I use the comma deliberately to slow things down. Besides, my high school English teacher would probably rise up from her grave if I didn't use the serial comma.

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Louis. You guys are making me feel better about some of my punctuation fixations.

Isn't it funny how, after all these years, we writers seem to remember the preferences of our high school English teachers? Surely they would all be proud . . .

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Yes, I have gotten the ability to comment. Let's hope it isn't temporary. John, don't you love Eats, Shoots and Leaves?

Wayne Anderson said...

Joh, with all the "ands" in "...orange juice, bacon and eggs and toast," I almost expect to see "oh my" added parenthetically at the end.;-)

John Floyd said...

Terrie, I think Lynne Truss did all writers a favor by publishing E,S, and L. (It takes a special talent to make a punctuation book interesting.) Yes, I do love it.

Wayne, I know what you mean! And you, as one of my former students, of course already know how I feel about all this comma stuff.