the serial comma

I haven’t seen the phrase “there are two kinds of people in the world” in a very long time, and that is probably a Good Thing. I would like to resurrect it, though, if only briefly, and only for the purposes of this specific blog entry.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who use the serial comma and those who don’t.

I am one of those who do use the serial comma, often called the Oxford comma. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th edition, whose advice I generally like, tells us, however, “In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series.” In a physical newspaper (as opposed to the online edition), where every pica of space counts, that probably is practical advice. But it is not advice that I am inclined to follow.

The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, advises, “Items in a series are normally separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity.” That is my approach.

Mary Norris in her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (a review is forthcoming) has some fun with this. She went online and found examples where omitting the comma before the and did create some amusing ambiguity.

For example:

quoteThis book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

I had seen this one before, but I have to say that the thought of the author’s parents being Ayn Rand and God is a truly frightening prospect.

Here’s another:

quoteAnd there was the country-and-western singer who “was joined by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.”

I absolutely support gay marriage, but I don’t believe that either Kris Kristofferson or Waylon Jennings is gay, much less married at different times to the same male country singer. Certainly the author was trying to tell us that the country singer was joined on stage by four people, not by two.

My friend Farrell shared the meme below on Facebook. It’s a good graphical explanation of the value of the serial, or Oxford, comma.

Let’s work to keep the serial comma alive.