LawProse Lesson 366: The Serial Comma

LawProse Lesson 366: The Serial Comma

Most kids begin to learn punctuation from ages 8 to 11. It’s a highly impressionable age. The curriculum is fairly standard except on one recurrent point: do you or don’t you put a comma before the and or or that introduces the final item in a list? Some curricula say yes; others say no. A few call it optional.

In late adolescence, kids start following different paths. For those who pursue advertising and journalism, the rule is to omit the final comma. For those who pursue almost every other type of writing, the rule is to include it. Once people learn the rule—whichever way it goes—it hardens in their minds. Many writers come to feel as passionately about the issue as they do any core belief. Hence social-media posts are full of acrimonious debates about the serial comma.

Last month, we put out a Twitter poll. The question was objectively posed: “What do you think about the serial comma (aka Oxford comma)?”

There were four possible answers: favor its use (90%), disfavor its use (4%), don’t know what it is (1%), and feel indifferent (5%). The results among the 1,336 respondents were far more lopsided than we had expected. One commented: “You will pry the serial comma from my cold, dead, moldering hand.” Another, taking the opposite view (and omitting the comma), said: “No need to be strident, upset or even concerned about the serial comma. When it’s necessary, use it. When it’s redundant, omit it.”

What do the experts say? We recently examined more than 100 books on writing. By a 3-to-1 margin, these texts recommended uniform inclusion of the serial comma.

Of course, there are funny examples going both ways. They usually involve supposed appositives that begin with category terms and then list specific names: I dedicate this book to my mother, Mother Theresa, and God. (Are you claiming Mother Theresa as your mother?) They invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. (You’re saying JFK and Stalin were strippers?) These inevitably involve odd lists with unusual combinations.

We like bright-line rules, and here is ours: Use the serial comma unless you’re a newspaper journalist. Even the journalistic experts concede that the commas are often necessary. They just think you should assess each instance.

But why should writers—busy people composing under pressure—have to stop and consider whether anyone might misread a list they’re composing or have just composed? As we know, people aren’t necessarily good at seeing how others might misread their words.

The convention of uniform inclusion obviates needless worries and in no way depletes a scarce resource: it’s not as if we have only a finite supply of commas available. So be a minimalist in punctuation if you like, but not with this comma. If you’re a lawyer, the choice is easy: all the real-world examples of ambiguity are caused by omission, not by inclusion. Why risk it—unless you’re stuck in your preadolescent beliefs?

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