Sunday, January 07, 2007
Let's Stop Serial-Comma Killing Now!
We know society exhibits moral outrage over serial killings, as well it should.
But why the widespread apathy over the death throes of the serial comma?
Fight the good fight. Become a Serial Comma Commando today!
The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, is the comma found in this construction:
Hurray for the red, white, and blue.
Believers of the use of this construction (like me) insist on that comma after the word white.
My particular reasons are straightforward: consistency and lack of ambiguity.
At least I thought so until I checked out the entry for topic at Wikipedia. I must say, the entry is exhaustive and entertaining.
It gives cogent arguments both for and against.
I used to be a newspaper copy editor. Nearly all newspapers (at least in American and Canada) do not use the serial comma. The New York Times and The Washington Post, excellent newspapers, do not employ that comma after the word white in the example above. Nearly all book publishers used to use it. The New Yorker magazine still uses it.
I reject the argument (made by some, including Lynne Truss of the popular book Eats, Shoots & Leaves) that this style decision is variable depending on context and circumstances. (Oh, of course, you can find an exception to any rule. So, yes, all such decisions are potentially variable. I'm not talking about that. Oliver Wendell Holmes said something like you have to know the rules before you know how to break them. I'm talking about the rule here, not the exception[s].)
I say adhere to the rule, or not, but do so consistently.
It is troubling in recent years to find myself reading a novel and to encounter style usage all over the place on this.
Most of you say this is all silly and does not matter.
I'll close with the wonderful example from The Chicago Manual of Style (which, naturally, supports the view of the serial comma embraced by The Laughorist):
According to the erudite and entertaining folks at the University of Chicago Press (check out their FAQ section), not using the serial comma can put you in this pickle with this hypothetical book dedication:
"With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope."