Column:: A Word, Please: Serial commas can cause confusion too
“It was a typical Friday night at Costco in Corona. Customers, including an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, 32-year-old Kenneth French and his parents, waited in line for food samples.”
How many people are mentioned in this excerpt from a real Instagram post about a Los Angeles Times story? And, more interesting, could commas help answer that question?
Don’t ask a serial comma fan. You won’t get an unbiased answer. Instead, you’ll hear, “There should absolutely be a serial comma after the name Kenneth French. That’s why serial commas are great. They eliminate confusion.”
But I, a serial comma agnostic, see it a little differently. In some cases, serial commas eliminate confusion. In other cases, they cause it. I’ll explain what I mean. But first, a refresher on serial commas.
The serial comma, or Oxford comma, is the one that comes before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things: The flag is red, white, and blue. The restaurant serves coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and salads.
This comma is optional. The Chicago Manual of Style, which most book and magazine publishers follow, and many academic authorities say to use it. The Associated Press Stylebook, which many news outlets follow, says not to use it.
Fans insist the serial comma prevents confusion, using funny examples like: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. See what happens without the serial comma? It sounds as though JFK and Stalin are the strippers. And everyone knows Stalin didn’t have the glutes for it.
By inserting a serial comma, you erase all confusion: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin. Written this way, there’s zero chance people will show up hoping to see a world leader pole dance. Ipso facto the serial comma is superior, right?
Not so fast.
What if you made the first noun in that list singular instead of plural? Now the serial comma, instead of fixing a problem, becomes a problem: We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin. That comma raises the possibility that didn’t exist before: JFK (who did have the glutes for it) might have had a secret life as king of the bump-and-grind.
Take the comma out and the ambiguity disappears: We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.
Something called an appositive is the culprit. If you say, “My boss, Reginald, is here,” you’re using the name Reginald to restate the noun phrase “my boss.” That’s an appositive. “The house, a Mid-century gem, is on sale”: same thing. The appositive restates the idea of the house in different terms. Notice that appositives are set off by commas.
If your noun phrase is a plural like “strippers,” its appositive would be plural, like “JFK and Stalin.” If your noun phrase is singular, the singular JFK could appear to be an appositive if it’s followed by a comma.
So our original question boils down to: Was Kenneth French’s name an appositive of “off-duty police officer”? Or were they two different people? The answer: The off-duty officer is named Sanchez. Different guy. So a comma would have made the passage worse, not better.
In a victory for folks like me who challenge blind devotion to the serial comma, the Chicago Manual, has added this caveat to its 17th edition.
“In the rare cases where the serial comma does not prevent ambiguity, it may be necessary to reword,” it states.
It’s the first time they’ve admitted that the serial comma isn’t as great as fans say it is. And the Chicago editors make an excellent point about rewording. There are multiple ways our original sentence could have been clearer.
Simply changing “his parents” to “French’s parents” would have erased all doubt about whether “his” referred to the officer. Inserting Sanchez’s name could have done the same. And you could probably find five other ways to rewrite this to make it clear.
The moral is: The serial comma can be great, but not always.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.