A Word, Please: Commas come under scrutiny

Serial commas made headlines a few weeks ago when a court decided that the absence of a serial comma made a law ambiguous.

In this space last week, I begged to differ. But I didn’t have enough space to fully flesh out the long-raging debate about this tiny little mark.

People take serial commas very, very seriously. Also called the Oxford comma, the serial comma is the second one in “red, white, and blue.” It goes before the conjunction that precedes the last item in a series.

Here’s the source of all the controversy: The serial comma is optional. You would be just as correct to write “red, white and blue.”

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Some publishers have a policy of using it, and other publishers have a policy of not using it. There’s good reason for them to take sides.

In editing, consistency is a virtue. For the same reason, you don’t want “eight hundred” on one page and “800” on the next, publishers decided long ago that their in-house editing rules, or styles, should ensure consistent use of punctuation.

Newspaper editors, conscious of the cost of ink and paper, have traditionally leaned toward fewer characters. You can guess where they stand on “800” vs. “eight hundred.” At newspapers, keeping things tight is deeply ingrained. So it’s not surprising the Associated Press Stylebook tells newspaper editors not to use serial commas: Barry, Sue and Evelyn.

Books make more money per copy and don’t need to print hundreds of thousands of copies every day. They’re not steeped in a culture of “make every character count.” So it’s not surprising book publishers don’t mind longer forms and extra characters.

Book editing, as enshrined in the Chicago Manual of Style, advocates using serial commas. But this probably has more to do with the fact that serial comma fans are legion and anti-serial-comma partisans are either less noisy or perhaps nonexistent.

Me, I’m vehement in my indifference. I have to edit in both styles, which can make your head spin. My personal agenda is just trying to keep straight which style I’m supposed to follow at any given minute. But in my more candid moments, I’ll confess I do lean a little bit one way.

Consider this sentence: She wore a red, blue, green, orange and purple shirt. It means, essentially: She wore a red and blue and green and orange and purple shirt. You need either commas or the coordinating conjunction “and” between the adjectives. Without neither, you have a red blue green orange and purple shirt. Total mess.

The rule books say that commas separate what are called “coordinate adjectives.” They can also separate other coordinated parts of speech. The name “coordinate adjective” is reminiscent of “coordinating conjunction” for a reason. In lists like these, the commas literally stand in for the word “and.”

If you use serial commas, that creates a problem with your logic. The serial comma comes before the conjunction “and.” Logically speaking, then, it’s redundant: “red and white and and blue.”

Serial comma fans say the punctuation mark prevents ambiguity. They cite examples like: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Martha.” Without a serial comma, God and Martha seem to be appositive of “parents” — essentially saying that God and Martha are your parents. Proof positive the serial comma is superior, right? Not so fast. If the first noun in that list were singular, the serial comma would instead create confusion: “I’d like to thank my father, God, and Martha.”

Serial commas do, in my experience, help with clarity more often than they muddy the waters. So that’s a good reason to like them. But that advantage gets knocked down a peg by the logical problem of implying “and and.”

You could debate all day about which system is better. It’s subjective. But neither way is wrong. The choice is up to you.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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