Arguing in favor of the serial comma

Yesterday, I finished editing a proposal using the client-mandated style guide that followed the Associated Press Stylebook’s requirement. My client’s style guide said: “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series (no serial commas)… Use a comma before the conjunction in a complex series.” The style guide provided just a few samples of “simple series” and “complex series.”

OK, fine. Since the client can set the style, I tried to follow their prescription.

What a waste of time it was to have to stop my forward motion to analyze whether each series was “simple” or “complex,” given the limited examples offered by AP and my client. I had to decide whether to insert a serial comma or not in sentences like these:

  1. We define policies that include a delegation agreement, policies and procedures, file review if applicable for UM, credentialing/re-credentialing, and complex case management.
  2. This will achieve cost-effective, measurable and compliant outcomes.
  3. However, we have already made noticeable progress through streamlining workflows for information sharing, defining outcome determinations, and standardizing internal processes to ensure that we meet timeliness targets.*

Imagine 400 pages with about 8 series per page. When I automatically plunk a serial comma before every final conjunction, I move through each series in an average of 15 seconds. In this nightmare scenario, I had to assess each series for simplicity or complexity, and I estimate that this cerebral effort required an average of 45 seconds. At 30 seconds more per series, that’s 26 hours more over the entire 400 pages. (Feel free to check my math.)

Is it any wonder that ALL American style guides except for the Associated Press require writers to use the serial comma? Don’t you wish everyone did?

To read my newsletter article about the serial comma, visit my Constant Contact archive.

*Note: I followed the client’s rules here; I would have used the serial comma in sentence #2.

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