Thursday, June 30, 2011

Serial Comma For the Win

I both love and despise grammar.  I love the orders and rules of grammar, which attempt to make sense of the fluid, abstract being that is oral language.  I also love playing with that grammar to add meaning to a text.  I despise when people use grammar for evil, getting their panties in a twist about grammar and using it to condescend to others.  There are some basic things that drive me crazy, sure, born mostly of a need for cogency (homophones come to mind).  But to get into a hissy-fit because someone uses the incorrect pronoun for the antecedent "somebody" -- come on now. I am happy to find I am not alone in this.

I try to be open-minded about grammar and its changes.  The serial comma is an exception to my I'm OK, You're OK grammar philosophy, and I feel a strange affinity for this blip of punctuation.  Apparently Oxford University Press has officially dropped the "Oxford comma," aka the serial comma from their PR department.   Their standard usage is now that in a series of items, a comma before the final item is unnecessary unless it is needed to avoid ambiguity (this book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God teehee).

I shouldn't care as much as I do.  I perceive this as one more of those exceptions to our language that makes things unnecessarily difficult.  Is it really so confusing or time-consuming to put in a final comma?  I know newspapers have long dropped the serial comma, but I'd still love to see the statistics from a newspaper on how much ink they saved by dropping serial commas. Oh wait, print newspapers would need subscribers for that, anyway!*

Anyone here pro-serial-killing?  I just haven't heard a compelling argument to drop it, or maybe I'm too fanatically loyal to be swayed; I think leaving it out tends to elicit more ambiguity or at least more frequent opportunities for ambiguity than eliminating it would.  I don't really accept the accusation of "clutter" as a valid one.  Political correctness and commercialism possess more fault for our inflated purple language than the unassuming comma.

Can we just agree that either is fine, just be consistent?  I usually talk to my students about the fluidity of grammar and point out rules such as this one which change or are stylistic choices.  I tell them that grammar changes over time (e.g., "ain't" used to be perfectly acceptable during the Elizabethan court).   In fact, I think it's only a matter of time before the plural, non-gender "they/their" is acceptable for indefinite pronouns ("Somebody left their comma here.").  They may have teachers who tell them different things or prefer different styles: that's life.  They're more on board - or I like to think they are -  if I'm honest that sometimes grammar just is what the bigwigs say it is, and we have to accept that. 

What's your take?  What does your state standard guide tell you to do with the serial comma?  And do you obey or practice civil disobedience?

*ok, that was mean.  I do love newspapers and love print newspapers (for nostalgia's sake).  I do wonder about the future and relevance of print newspapers in a digital age.


  1. I could take or leave the serial comma, although I have friends who would totally fight me for that. We got into big fight about it at school once, which is particularly nerdy and hilarious. Mostly I just agree with Vampire Weekend...

  2. I cringe EVERY time I read a sentence with no serial comma. Which is pretty much 1,000 times a day. WHY? WHY, PEOPLE? Why this hatred for a comma that clarifies sentence meaning and provides a natural pause? WHY?!?!?

  3. I have to admit I'm sad as well! I love discussing how good writers make stylistic choices to get their points across in specific ways [not to mention that if any of my students are aspiring copy editors, they better be able to explain why that comma is used there because ink equals money, but I digress:)]. And I think you're right...I have a feeling a lot more changes will be coming into play down the road!