Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Serial Comma

It seems that no one follows this rule anymore:
One of the questions we are asked frequently is whether a comma should go before the conjunction "and" in a series of three or more items. The answer is yes. Although grammar gurus abandoned that comma rule for a while in the twentieth century, we have since realized that using the serial comma (as it is called) is a good idea for two reasons:

First, it prevents misreading. Consider this sentence, for example:

The menu for the class picnic will feature green beans, stewed apples, macaroni and cheese and okra and tomatoes.

Without the serial comma, the series items are difficult to see. Here is the same sentence with the serial comma added:

The menu for the class picnic will feature green beans, stewed apples, macaroni and cheese, and okra and tomatoes.

With the serial comma, the reader can tell easily that the class ate four different dishes, not five or six, as may have been construed without that last comma. . . .

Here’s another example:

Mrs. Jones left her money to Sally and Fred Smith, Margaret and John Williams, Betty and Harold Spivey and their children.

Without the serial comma, the sentence could be interpreted to mean that only Betty and Harold Spivey’s children would receive a share of the inheritance. With the comma, the sentence would clearly communicate that the children of all three couples were to receive a share:

Mrs. Jones left her money to Sally and Fred Smith, Margaret and John Williams, Betty and Harold Spivey, and their children.
From Get It Write.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things Strunk and White ever inflicted on us was their insane attack on the serial (aka Oxford) comma!

I once got blistered by my Oscar-winning ex-employer for using the serial comma in a TV series pitch. He looked at me -- exopthalmic, horrified -- as if I'd casually dropped the popular Ebonic conjunction 't'aint,' or started a sentence with "irregardless,"
or spun my head around three times and farted out my ears. I tried in vain to tell him that this issue was very much open to debate -- at which point he looked upon me with the kind of pity usually reserved for the subjects of Sebastiao Salgado photos.

Where were you when I needed you, O.G.?

ivanomartin said...

I grew up using it, but had it beaten out of me in college and law school.

dn