Inquiring Minds – Serial Comma?

Welcome to another edition of Inquiring Minds. This time, I’m wondering how many of you use the serial comma, or, if you prefer, the Oxford comma.

The serial comma is the one that comes before the word ‘and’ or the word ‘or’ in a list of three or more items.

I use it, and I know it makes other people crazy. Like two spaces after each sentence, the serial comma is a rule that has been relaxed over the years. But as an editor and proofreader, I always use it because it leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader as to the author’s intentions.

For example:

He ordered bacon, eggs, and toast.

Versus:

He ordered bacon, eggs and toast.

Of course, you can use it or omit it; that’s a matter of personal preference. However, there might be an item on the menu called eggs and toast. If that’s the case, he only ordered two items. The first is bacon, and the second is eggs and toast. The serial comma eliminates doubt about the author’s intentions.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Does it really matter?”

Not always. But sometimes it does.

For example:

I love my parents, Patsy Cline, and Darth Vader.

Versus:

I love my parents, Patsy Cline and Darth Vader.

In the second sentence, it’s implied that Patsy Cline and Darth Vader are the author’s parents because no comma separates them. So, that sounds like holidays and family reunions could be interesting.

For the casual writer, the serial comma barely registers as an option. We send enough emails and texts without proper punctuation that it’s not even a consideration. But if you really want to sharpen your writing, editing, and proofreading skills, I highly recommend you employ it. And, I’m not alone. It’s the preferred practice as suggested by The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, and style guides for various medical associations. (Makes sense – if there’s one ‘language’ in which information must be delivered in a way that leaves no doubt, it’s medical jargon.)

It is not, however, recommended by the AP Stylebook. This is a bit of a conundrum. Many journalism students are encouraged to use the AP Stylebook as a bible. Then they find a job at an organization which prefers The Chicago Manual of Style, and they perpetually question their comma usage.

As I mentioned, my personal practice is to use it unless someone writing me a check for my services specifies that I don’t. Besides, I think my parents, Patsy Cline, and Darth Vader would prefer it.

Do you use the serial comma?

 

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