Revenge of the lowly comma

by DaniGirl on August 11, 2006 · 47 comments

in Wordplay

One of my favourite posts was the ‘zed versus zee’ pronunciation debate, and not just because it still generates at least one hit a week. I just have a strange affection for the idiosyncracies of language. Like yesterday, I spent half an hour researching whether or not I had to use a serial comma. Apparently, there are feuding factions on this one – and you thought Red Sox v Yankees, or Capulets v Montagues, or Tastes Great v Less Filling were blood feuds!

A serial comma is the comma that may (or may not) come just before a conjunction in a list of items. Which one is right:

We had a huge lunch with sandwiches, fruit and potato chips.
* or *
We had a huge lunch with sandwiches, fruit, and potato chips.

That second comma, after fruit, is a serial comma. I don’t tend to use them, and most newspaper style guides – including the Canadian Press and the NYT – agree with me. But Strunk and White and Fowler’s Modern English Style beg to differ.

What’s a girl to do? Grammar matters! If you don’t believe me, read this Globe and Mail story (hat tip to Fryman for the link) about a comma that may just cost Rogers Communication the tidy sum of $2.13M.

I get other cool stuff in my in-box, too. Like AOL sent me no schwag whatsoever with their request for me to advertise their new Study Buddy service for K – 12 school kids. I have long thought AOL was the devil, and haven’t really had the chance to check out this service, but hey, maybe one of you might find it helpful.

And this is cool. There’s a wonderful organization in the States called First Book, which I will happily endorse (also completely without schwag – see how magnanimous I am?), and they are offering a coupon for 10% off your purchase at Borders (which I understand is a lovely book store in the US) for August 26 and 27 only. An additional 10% of your purchase will be donated to First Book.

Now I’ve got to go figure whether I’m a serial commaist or not…


{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 krista August 11, 2006 at 1:12 pm

I, for one, am totally a serial commaist. I am, always, it seems, going back to delete unnecessary commas.

2 krista August 11, 2006 at 1:12 pm

I, for one, am totally a serial commaist. I am, always, it seems, going back to delete unnecessary commas.

3 Marla August 11, 2006 at 1:48 pm

Well, it is always nice to resolve ambiguity wherever possible. Or to create some.
I pay no attention to the rules, as you might have figured out by now. I sprinkle commas in to give people a chance to rest and breathe during my run-on sentences. Kind of like speed bumps, but less annoying.
I say use ’em if you got ’em. They’re free, you know.

4 Marla August 11, 2006 at 1:48 pm

Well, it is always nice to resolve ambiguity wherever possible. Or to create some.
I pay no attention to the rules, as you might have figured out by now. I sprinkle commas in to give people a chance to rest and breathe during my run-on sentences. Kind of like speed bumps, but less annoying.
I say use ’em if you got ’em. They’re free, you know.

5 Andrea August 11, 2006 at 2:35 pm

I always thought it was called an Oxford comma. (You have to admit, it sounds spiffier.)
Generally, I don’t use them. In the example you provided, I wouldn’t have. But it depends on what makes a sentence clearer.
I always figured the point of grammar is to help people understand what you’re saying; so I’m not too hidebound about the rules, as long as the end result makes sense.

6 Andrea August 11, 2006 at 2:35 pm

I always thought it was called an Oxford comma. (You have to admit, it sounds spiffier.)
Generally, I don’t use them. In the example you provided, I wouldn’t have. But it depends on what makes a sentence clearer.
I always figured the point of grammar is to help people understand what you’re saying; so I’m not too hidebound about the rules, as long as the end result makes sense.

7 dean dad August 11, 2006 at 2:38 pm

If you don’t use a serial comma, the terrorists win.

8 dean dad August 11, 2006 at 2:38 pm

If you don’t use a serial comma, the terrorists win.

9 Sayre August 11, 2006 at 3:01 pm

Pick up a copy of EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES. There’s a kid version of it too! You will love it!

10 Sayre August 11, 2006 at 3:01 pm

Pick up a copy of EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES. There’s a kid version of it too! You will love it!

11 jo(e) August 11, 2006 at 3:03 pm

My name is jo(e) and I am a recovering serial commaist.

12 jo(e) August 11, 2006 at 3:03 pm

My name is jo(e) and I am a recovering serial commaist.

13 JoJo August 11, 2006 at 3:19 pm

Serial commas? This is a bit over my frenglish head.
I would lost without spell and grammar check. Both of which save me in this high tech world. However, most of the techies I write to have no concept of grammar so even Microsoft’s horrible grammar check is wasted on them.
Jaimie picked up EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES a couple of years ago and it is fantastic!

14 JoJo August 11, 2006 at 3:19 pm

Serial commas? This is a bit over my frenglish head.
I would lost without spell and grammar check. Both of which save me in this high tech world. However, most of the techies I write to have no concept of grammar so even Microsoft’s horrible grammar check is wasted on them.
Jaimie picked up EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES a couple of years ago and it is fantastic!

15 Sugarmama August 11, 2006 at 4:03 pm

I didn’t realize this comma had a name, but I ALWAYS use them. In your example, I thought that the first sentence read a little oddly. I read “fruit and potato chips” all in a rush. But I do remember being told in high school that they were somewhat obsolete and therefore optional.

16 Sugarmama August 11, 2006 at 4:03 pm

I didn’t realize this comma had a name, but I ALWAYS use them. In your example, I thought that the first sentence read a little oddly. I read “fruit and potato chips” all in a rush. But I do remember being told in high school that they were somewhat obsolete and therefore optional.

17 Madeleine August 11, 2006 at 4:41 pm

I like serial commas because they help sort out long lists where some things are “compound items” with an “and” within the item and some are separate. Oddly, though, I don’t like serial commas in a list of names. When I sign email from me, My Love, and Snuggly Girl I omit the serial comma. But not in that sentence. See! Weird.
I’ve been reading fancy restaurant menus to plan a dinner for my mom’s birthday and the grammar is terrible! I can’t tell if a certain dish actually contains caviar (ick) or if it is basil tomato “caviar” (yum) because the overall use of punctuation is so inconsistent as to make any individual instance of punctuation (or lack of) completely unreliable as a guide to meaning.
A good grammar rant: what better way to start the weekend?

18 Madeleine August 11, 2006 at 4:41 pm

I like serial commas because they help sort out long lists where some things are “compound items” with an “and” within the item and some are separate. Oddly, though, I don’t like serial commas in a list of names. When I sign email from me, My Love, and Snuggly Girl I omit the serial comma. But not in that sentence. See! Weird.
I’ve been reading fancy restaurant menus to plan a dinner for my mom’s birthday and the grammar is terrible! I can’t tell if a certain dish actually contains caviar (ick) or if it is basil tomato “caviar” (yum) because the overall use of punctuation is so inconsistent as to make any individual instance of punctuation (or lack of) completely unreliable as a guide to meaning.
A good grammar rant: what better way to start the weekend?

19 Madeleine August 11, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Oh, and did I tell you about the time I had an argument with a used car salesman about the meaning of the word “or”? I called the state consumer protection office and confirmed that I was correct. That didn’t save me from the condescending “well, I’ll go along with you, you silly young thing, even though you are wrong” speech.
That Rogers contract example is fabulous. I totally agree with the court; their lawyers messed up in permitting them to sign it.

20 Madeleine August 11, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Oh, and did I tell you about the time I had an argument with a used car salesman about the meaning of the word “or”? I called the state consumer protection office and confirmed that I was correct. That didn’t save me from the condescending “well, I’ll go along with you, you silly young thing, even though you are wrong” speech.
That Rogers contract example is fabulous. I totally agree with the court; their lawyers messed up in permitting them to sign it.

21 Jerri Ann August 11, 2006 at 4:48 pm

I, am not, a serial, commaist, however, I, am a, too often, user of, the comma. No really, I’m not that bad, I just thought it was funny. I really don’t use the serial comma…..I was bashed in high school for it and learned my lesson.

22 Jerri Ann August 11, 2006 at 4:48 pm

I, am not, a serial, commaist, however, I, am a, too often, user of, the comma. No really, I’m not that bad, I just thought it was funny. I really don’t use the serial comma…..I was bashed in high school for it and learned my lesson.

23 Zany Mama August 11, 2006 at 6:53 pm

I had a very strict English teacher in high school who drilled the concept of the serial comma into our brains. I feel guilty every time I don’t use one.
Because of him, I will also avoid beginning a sentence with the word There, since it doesn’t typically refer to anything and is apparently quite incorrect. (Although I’ve never been able to verify this particular assertion of his).
It’s very strange what stays with you.

24 Zany Mama August 11, 2006 at 6:53 pm

I had a very strict English teacher in high school who drilled the concept of the serial comma into our brains. I feel guilty every time I don’t use one.
Because of him, I will also avoid beginning a sentence with the word There, since it doesn’t typically refer to anything and is apparently quite incorrect. (Although I’ve never been able to verify this particular assertion of his).
It’s very strange what stays with you.

25 Trixie August 11, 2006 at 7:35 pm

There is no reason to avoid starting a sentence this way! Zany’s strict English teacher was fruity, chippy and nuts.
No comma.

26 Trixie August 11, 2006 at 7:35 pm

There is no reason to avoid starting a sentence this way! Zany’s strict English teacher was fruity, chippy and nuts.
No comma.

27 Lugina August 11, 2006 at 8:15 pm

In this particular example, I am a serial commaist. I learned to use them in school and I just can’t stop!
My mother-in-law uses commas everywhere. There are so many in each message – maybe more commas than words! You can never make sense of her sentences because there, are, so, many, pauses.

28 Lugina August 11, 2006 at 8:15 pm

In this particular example, I am a serial commaist. I learned to use them in school and I just can’t stop!
My mother-in-law uses commas everywhere. There are so many in each message – maybe more commas than words! You can never make sense of her sentences because there, are, so, many, pauses.

29 Liz August 11, 2006 at 11:05 pm

I am a serialist.
Seriously, let us say you are writing to a fabric store and ask them for a yard each of green, blue and red velvet. Are you asking for 2 yards or 3?

30 Liz August 11, 2006 at 11:05 pm

I am a serialist.
Seriously, let us say you are writing to a fabric store and ask them for a yard each of green, blue and red velvet. Are you asking for 2 yards or 3?

31 lini August 12, 2006 at 2:22 am

After 41 years of non use I have just been converted.
Thank you

32 lini August 12, 2006 at 2:22 am

After 41 years of non use I have just been converted.
Thank you

33 APL August 12, 2006 at 2:37 am

Liz’s example is a good one. I, too, use serial commas (although not in legal writing, where no one uses them).

34 APL August 12, 2006 at 2:37 am

Liz’s example is a good one. I, too, use serial commas (although not in legal writing, where no one uses them).

35 twinmomplusone August 12, 2006 at 5:23 am

never even heard of the term serial comma or maybe I did and intentionally obliterated it from my mind due to a rather nasty and terrifying Creative Writing teacher in college who brainwashed me into NEVER using a comma before a conjunction as in that was the Golden Rule (phew, maybe I should have inserted a few commas in there;).
So thank-you dani for enlightening me yet again.

36 twinmomplusone August 12, 2006 at 5:23 am

never even heard of the term serial comma or maybe I did and intentionally obliterated it from my mind due to a rather nasty and terrifying Creative Writing teacher in college who brainwashed me into NEVER using a comma before a conjunction as in that was the Golden Rule (phew, maybe I should have inserted a few commas in there;).
So thank-you dani for enlightening me yet again.

37 kris August 12, 2006 at 2:09 pm

I didn’t know how comma happy I was until grad school. My advisor had to give me a little lesson in their appropriate use–it was absolutely mortifying.

38 kris August 12, 2006 at 2:09 pm

I didn’t know how comma happy I was until grad school. My advisor had to give me a little lesson in their appropriate use–it was absolutely mortifying.

39 mike August 12, 2006 at 3:36 pm

I put together Tone Magazine, which you may have seen. The people who proofread the articles often put commas after an “and”, but not in the case of a a simple list as in your example, but if the “and” is followed by a phrase, it makes the sentence clearer.

40 mike August 12, 2006 at 3:36 pm

I put together Tone Magazine, which you may have seen. The people who proofread the articles often put commas after an “and”, but not in the case of a a simple list as in your example, but if the “and” is followed by a phrase, it makes the sentence clearer.

41 Riley August 12, 2006 at 10:05 pm

I am a huge fan and supporter of the serial comma. Commas, commas, and more commas!!!!!!
I am neither a fan nor supporter of the run on sentence, though, which is a common problem for the comma happy.

42 Riley August 12, 2006 at 10:05 pm

I am a huge fan and supporter of the serial comma. Commas, commas, and more commas!!!!!!
I am neither a fan nor supporter of the run on sentence, though, which is a common problem for the comma happy.

43 Kristina August 13, 2006 at 6:28 am

I think the most important thing is consistency: either you are a serial columnist in any given piece or you are not.
My favorite grammar rant is the incorrect use of the word “it’s” with the apostrophe. If “it” doesn’t own anything, “it” doesn’t need an apostrophe, people!

44 Kristina August 13, 2006 at 6:28 am

I think the most important thing is consistency: either you are a serial columnist in any given piece or you are not.
My favorite grammar rant is the incorrect use of the word “it’s” with the apostrophe. If “it” doesn’t own anything, “it” doesn’t need an apostrophe, people!

45 Trixie August 13, 2006 at 9:55 pm

Drives me crazy, too! But you stop short of the actual rule—“It’s” is short for “it is” … and nothing else! What get’s my goat even worse, though, are sign’s that say things like Nacho’s … or are loaded with other plurals that are spelled like possessive’s ๐Ÿ˜‰

46 Trixie August 13, 2006 at 9:55 pm

Drives me crazy, too! But you stop short of the actual rule—“It’s” is short for “it is” … and nothing else! What get’s my goat even worse, though, are sign’s that say things like Nacho’s … or are loaded with other plurals that are spelled like possessive’s ๐Ÿ˜‰

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