Tuesday, January 7, 2014

To comma or not to comma?

Full disclosure: I like commas, always have. They’re cheap, widely available, and so darned cute. And I fully admit to overusing them, on occasion. Like now, for instance. Did I need the comma between “overusing them” and “on occasion”? Nope, not at all. The sentence would’ve read fine without it. I just like 'em.

But while some commas are optional, one must-have comma, ground into me since childhood grammar lessons, is  the “serial comma.” This is the one that precedes the “and”  or “or” at the end of the list, and is 100% non-negotiable (well, for me at least). For example, if one were going to pack for an exciting trip abroad:  
Correct: She packed her stockings, garters, and heels.
Incorrect: She packed her stockings, garters and heels. 
So when Nik and I started writing together, I was amazed that he omits, more often than not, the serial comma. I know times are tough and we all need to economize, but there are many more commas I’d cut before the serial. 

The great comma debate: Well, as it turns out, the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, isn’t blindly used across the UK. In fact, as I started Googling the situation, it seems that there’s something of a raging debate over said comma, the so-called Oxford-Cambridge divide. 

Now far be it from me to insert myself in a centuries-old feud, but here’s a quick who’s who:
Team Comma: 
Team Only-When-Necessary-to-Avoid-Ambiguity:
For lack of a comma. One of the most famous examples of the ambiguity that can result from a missing serial comma comes from a documentary of Peter Ustinov published, somewhat ironically, in The Times (“Planet Ustinov,” 22 Nov 1998):
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”
Not knowing how Mr Mandela occupied himself in his spare time, I can’t comment on his alleged collection. And he could've be a demigod, for all I know. But I’m fairly certain he wasn't 800 years old. 

Here are some more examples, I’m making these up in my head as I fold the laundry:
Happy to be home, he hugged his sons, Charlene and Abigail. 
Touring the city, she purchased gifts for her mother, lace panties and cigars.
He visited his aunt’s house, a massage parlor and a bookstore. 
See? I could go on and on. 

Fully admitting my bias, I think Garner’s American Usage has the best take on the situation:
“Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma many cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”
Or will it? Try as I might, I can’t seem to come up with an example where my beloved serial comma actually introduces ambiguity. Can you?


  1. As an editor, I am bothered by the under usage of the comma. It's not as if we pay an exorbitant amount for the space they take. Twitter is the only place I take the liberty to omit punctuation. Keep using that cute comma!!!

    1. Thanks, Leslie! Your comment about space made my chuckle. Yesterday my ten year old son shared his trick for making assignments look longer: he changes all punctuation to a slightly larger font so that they take up a bit more space! He claims to be able to eek out at least another line of writing...

    2. Normally I would dedicate an entire derisive post to this sort of thing, but since it's Jay I'll restrict myself to a humble comment to the effect that it's "eke out" (meaning to make a small supply last longer), not "eek out" (meaning to scream and exit a building with rapidity).

  2. Well, I find it fascinating that Jay thinks I under-use the comma, because I usually find myself in the position of adding in the Oxford comma when proofing or editing (despite being a Cambridge man)! Right now my personal bugbear is the lack of hyphenation. I wrote a post on this ages ago (http://www.literarykiss.com/2012/09/speling-and-punctuation_17.html) but I was critiquing some articles over the holiday and the number of sentences rendered ambiguous or unreadable by the lack of a hyphen really got my goat...

  3. I'm all for the Oxford comma. Much comma use can be considered a stylistic choice. I'm more prone to leave commas out between independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions because I don't want that pause there even though the pause makes it grammatically correct. The literary journal I read submissions for last fall didn't make much of such stylistic choices, but I did have a reader find every intentional comma splice in my short story collection and send me a list of corrections.

    1. Amazing that people have that much time on their hands!

      I have an ongoing debate over comma usage with a long-time friend who reviews all my technical writing...he crosses out nearly every comma except for the Oxford (with a fat red marker and a snarky comment or two), claiming the rest are unnecessary and just clutter up the writing. I usually pout a bit then meet him halfway.

  4. I always cringe that an old English teacher is going to read my blog and think ~ she should have paid better attention in class. Turning from a Math Geek into a write I realize how horrible my use of punctuation and grammar truly is. Thank heavens most sites have spell check.
    Despite all of this is does drive me nuts when even I can spot a comma mistake.
    AND thank you for the lesson I got it now, I hope.

    1. As an engineering undergrad at Ohio State, we had to take a class in creative writing and also one in technical writing (also, to date myself, mechanical drawing and surveying!). As much as I grumbled about taking time away from my "real" classes, it has really paid off! I write stuff constantly for my job, way more than I ever thought I would. And haven't surveyed a single thing since senior year...

  5. BTW are you doing the 2014 BBC? I managed to only satisfy 9 months but trying again

    1. I read tons of qualifying books last year (thanks to Nik), but did a horribly crappy job keeping up with posts. But I love trying things again (I'm on round 3 of religious ed homeschool) so will give it another shot. Thanks for the reminder, LB!