Why we should be glad that the serial comma is not running for office this year

Why we should be glad that the serial comma is not running for office this year

Take a break from today’s ridiculous political nonsense to think about the serial comma (the comma before the “and” or “or” in a series of three or more items: “lock, stock, and barrel,” for example).

If you think that either party’s debate statements and political ads are laughable, look at a recent post from a fellow editor asking about the serial comma:

“A new client of mine said that she prefers no serial comma because it’s more casual and conversational when it’s not used. Is that how you all see the serial comma? I’ve always been a fan of it, but I always defer to my clients’ wishes. I’ve just never thought of not using the serial comma to be more conversational.”

Then read these fact-free responses from members of that group:

  • Generally, newspapers and popular magazines don’t use the serial comma for that very reason; the serial comma is considered too formal.
  • I have also heard people say that not using a serial comma seems more modern.

Imagine if I were to use the same emotional argument to decide whether to stop at a stop sign or not. I can just hear myself now: “Oh, sorry, Officer—I was driving casually, not formally.” An equally ridiculous argument would be “I’m following more modern standards.”

Let’s not use emotions or whim to decide about punctuation. Instead, check out the facts: Most major style guides in the United States call for the use of the serial comma to avoid potential confusion or ambiguity, including:

  • The American Medical Association Manual of Style
  • The American Psychological Association Publication Manual
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • The Gregg Reference Manual
  • The US Government Printing Office Style Manual
  • The Yahoo Style Guide

Only The Associated Press Style Guide (AP) discourages the use of the serial comma, calling for its use only in a complex series of phrases, not in a simple series. AP style requires the author or editor to stop and decide what is a complex series of phrases—which is a fuzzy standard at best.

I would find it annoying and time-consuming to have to stop and debate if I have a simple or complex series of phrases. Even then, omitting the serial comma in a “simple series” would result in sentences such as these two classic examples:

  1. “I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.”
  2. “A notorious gambler, Charlie Sheen owed money to his ex-wives, Billy Bob Thornton and Hugh Grant.”

I rest my case. I vote for the serial comma, always!

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