March 3, 2012

Diary of a serial comma

Serial comma exhibit A

Despite having a university education, I still had a lot to learn about editing, proofing and punctuation on the job. That education was dispensed with a velvet fist by Jann Hattrup, the editor at TeamDesign (now Methodologie). One of the rules I learned governed the use of the serial comma. The serial comma is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items (from Wikipedia). For the past 20 years, the standard for commercial editing has been:
Serial commas old school

With no comma before the conjunction. Lately, clients have been insisting that the serial comma be included. So I emailed Jann to find out what the real deal was. Here’s Jann’s report:

Wow — what goes around comes around! That comma before the “and” is called a serial comma — first it was the absolute standard, and then people didn’t use it so much (apparently because newspapers dropped it for space), and now it’s back.

Which for me is just fine — it makes things clearer. Without it, you can get things like this:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Really?

It prevents ambiguities. If you have something like this:

“Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.”

It’s pretty hard to tell if that’s two recipes or three, and what’s in each one. Personally, I’d like peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut, but I can’t tell if that’s actually an option.

So I’m all for the serial comma. I just think it lets you read a sentence without having to stop and think about it, which is the whole point of punctuation anyway.

Thanks Jann. Now I’m neither confused, nor ignorant, nor misinformed about the use of serial commas.