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I'm a copy editor, and my colleagues and I frequently bicker about the serial comma. My company does have a style guide which requires us to include the comma, but some of my colleagues are vehemently opposed to it and only begrudgingly include it. What's the deal? Is there a right answer?
Dear Seriously Serial,
The serial comma, also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, is a point of contention in the grammar world. After a recent false alarm that the serial comma had been dropped by the University of Oxford Writing and Style Guide, the debate was revived: Do we really need the extra comma, or can we just do without it?
Six ProfNet grammar experts discuss:
What Is a Serial Comma?
The serial comma is the final comma before a conjunction in a series, or in a list of three or more words, says Steve Vittorioso, former newspaper reporter and current associate at InkHouse, a media and marketing agency.
He provides us with some examples of the serial comma:
Bob, Joe, and Tim went to the sports game.
My favorite foods are turkey, chocolate, and pizza.
Why You Should Use the Serial Comma:
Three editors from AMACOM Books, the book publishing division of the American Management Association, present three different environments where inclusion of the serial comma solves ambiguity:
"The Oxford comma may be unnecessary in simple lists," says Erika Spelman, associate editor and copy manager, "but using it in more complex lists can prevent confusion on the part of the reader."
Managing Editor Andy Ambraziejus presents a straightforward example:
They are available in the following colors: blue and green, red and white, and orange and green.
In this case, it is clear that the thing being described comes in three combinations of colors, says Ambraziejus. But without the comma it becomes:
They are available in the following colors: blue and green, red and white and orange and green.
It's not obvious this time what combination of colors are available. Are there only two combinations of colors, one being blue and green, and the other being red and white and orange and green?
"Even though the serial comma may seem superfluous at times," says Ambraziejus, "it makes things immediately clear for the reader -- the ultimate goal of punctuation."
Spelman presents another example that shows that without the comma, confusion can result when a word or phrase is used to modify something in a list:
We are interested in customer relationship management, transactional processing, advanced supply chain planning, event management and Web portals providing self-service.
"Is there such a thing as an 'event management portal'?" Spelman asks. Although it is still clear that "Web" is modifying portals, without the comma, it is not clear if "event management" is also modifying "portals." So does this sentence mean "event management, as well as Web portals," or "event management portals and Web portals"?
Here is the same sentence with the serial comma included:
We are interested in customer relationship management, transactional processing, advanced supply chain planning, event management, and Web portals providing self-service.
This time, it's apparent that the writer means "event management, as well as Web portals."
The third scenario supporting inclusion of the serial comma is presented by Senior Development Editor Barry Richardson, which addresses modifying phrases vs. conjunctions in a series:
Gloria reads stories in the newspaper about the Pope, a thief and a murderer.
"Is there something we don't know about the Pontiff?" Richardson asks, because this sentence is ambiguous. Did Gloria read stories about the Pope and a thief and a murderer? Or did she read a story about the Pope who *is* a thief and a murderer? The difference here is pretty important, so Richardson recommends always including the serial comma:
Gloria reads stories in the newspaper about the Pope, a thief, and a murderer.
Why You Should Not Use the Serial Comma
In the previous example, including the comma definitely cleared up the fact that the Pope is not "a thief and a murderer." However, our very own ProfNet Director Maria Perez points out that even when we do include the serial comma, the sentence is still ambiguous. Here is another similar example:
I went to the mall with my brother, Tim, and George.
The serial comma is included, but it's not understandable who exactly you went to the mall with. Did you go with your brother and Tim and George? Or did you go to the mall with your brother named Tim, as well as George?
So in this scenario, both including the comma and not including the comma makes this sentence ambiguous.
Additionally, including the serial comma even when the sentence would not be ambiguous without it takes up more space. "In the world of newsprint" says Vittorioso, "space is valuable, so every character and tap of the spacebar counts. Omitting the Oxford comma can conserve space and tighten writing -- two points my journalism instructors stressed as key ingredients to solid news writing."
So How Do We Resolve This?
When we meet a new person, says Jesse Scinto, senior medical editor at Concentric Pharma Advertising in New York, we access verbal and nonverbal cues. Sometimes those cues are in the clothes people wear, like a suit and tie, which lend credibility, he says.
"With written words, it's much the same," he continues. "We're still looking for cues, but proper grammar and punctuation become the suit and tie. Written words are a proxy for an author who cannot be present. Editors know this, which is why they get so exercised over details."
"The Oxford comma evokes debate because people have different ideas on what constitutes a credible 'suit and tie.' But the ultimate goal of a good editor is to help produce a piece of writing that will be understood by the broadest swatch of readers."
Perez agrees: "Grammar, as with any component of writing, is supposed to make the meaning of a sentence clearer. So don't follow a rule just because it's a rule."
"In some sentences, the Oxford comma makes sense to use, but in others, it's not necessary," she continues. "If you want to follow just one rule, it should be this: Make it clear. Whatever style, or mix of styles, you use to get there should be irrelevant."
What do you think?