Pointless controversy: The serial comma

I got into an interesting discussion recently, one that apparently causes English departments to form sides and descend into bloody clashes. It concerns the use of the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.

Which of these do you think is right?

I went to the store for apples, bananas, and grapes.
I went to the store for apples, bananas and grapes.

The first uses the serial comma; the second does not.

Apparently, by and large this is seen as a stylistic choice, and both are more or less considered right. Most style guides advise the use of the serial comma, except a few outliers like AP. The serial comma is also crucial in technical and regulatory writing. But overall, many writers will tell you it doesn’t matter as long as you’re consistent.

But I’m here today to tell you there is in fact a right answer to this conundrum. There is a correct choice!

The correct choice is to use the Oxford comma. I will defend this point.

1. It favors clarity.

Removing the serial comma can create ambiguity, and the situations where this happens aren’t all that uncommon. There are rare cases where using the serial comma can also create ambiguity. On the balance, clarity overwhelmingly favors the comma; this is why technical writing uses it. While any ambiguous sentence should be rewritten to resolve the ambiguity, far fewer of these situations come up with the serial comma than without.

What I find interesting is that the ambiguity problem is always resolved in spoken English. Inflection makes all the difference in those cases, but the written language has no way of handling inflection.

2. Semicolons work this way already.

Boom. This is a killer argument and impossible to defend against. If semicolons use a serial format already, why break with that when using commas? Both are serving as list delimiters in this case; the idea that one should behave very differently from the other when used for this purpose is absurd. This alone should be the end of the discussion.

3. In spoken English, the comma is already there.

Written English and spoken English are two different languages, but the former is meant to mimic the latter well enough to convey its meaning. In a list, the pause for a comma (or a semicolon, as the case may be) is always there before the “and”. It’s a short pause, but it’s undeniably there; and it’s no shorter than the pauses that do get commas. This is another argument against which there is no defense. If speech follows this pattern, the written word should too.

Let me throw something else at you: Every time there’s a pause in spoken English, there’s a corresponding punctuation mark—except when omitting the serial comma. There’s no other precedent I’m aware of for leaving out punctuation where a pause occurs in spoken English.

Wikipedia lists most of the arguments for the serial comma, but those last two are solid strikes. There’s no justification that competes with them. And the arguments against?

It’s redundant in a list, because the “and” or “or” does the job. If it’s so redundant, why do semicolons get to stay when they’re the separator rather than commas? The counter-argument, that omitting the comma makes the last two items seem joined, is at least as strong. So redundancy is a stupid argument. Nice try.

Omitting the comma saves space. Uh… what? Does this ever come up? Weak sauce! This is a stupid argument too. I won’t nice-try this one because it’s moronic. Even though newspapers seem to be the primary drivers against the Oxford comma, and they do have space concerns, it’s downright silly to think a handful of commas will use up so much space as to be an issue. If it ever came down to that, it would make more sense to tighten up the article language somewhere else.

So there you go. Two and a half solid arguments for (I have to count the clarity thing for half), a partially negative argument against (negatively weighed because of its stronger corollary), and an argument against that’s too dumb to count for anything. Final score: 2.6 in favor.

Maybe the dumbest part of all of this, though, is that while Wikipedia claims many sources are against using either form systematically, it doesn’t back that up. And thank goodness it doesn’t, because it’d be stupid to just use either willy-nilly without consistency. However, most of the style guides that are against the serial comma—most of them are newspapers and magazines—have to add in relatively convoluted rules for cases where it’s necessary. Basically the pro camp says, “Always do this, and if you run into ambiguity in a rare case then you should just rewrite it to resolve that like you would anything else.” The con camp says, “Never do this, except in these weird cases you may have trouble recognizing, but they’ll come up so look out for them.”

Used in speech. Matches the semicolon. Generally far less ambiguous. The Voice of Duh has spoken!

Update: I have to add to this, because I ran across a counter-argument so stupid that it has to be addressed. I’ve heard several people say that the reason not to use a serial comma is that the commas in the phrase “strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries” (to write it their way) indicate the omission of the word “and”.

Good gads no. What idiot is teaching people that? Hearing more than one person say this suggests there’s somebody actually going around pushing this notion, which is like having more than one grown adult tell you Teddy Roosevelt conquered Pluto. Now we all know Teddy could’ve conquered Pluto if he put his mind to it, even though it wasn’t actually discovered until a decade after his death. The point is it didn’t happen.

In the written English language, commas are never used to indicate an omission. Ever. I mean really, think about it, because it’s clear these people accepted it without giving it a thought. Like all other punctuation, commas indicate pauses in cadence. We omit words constantly in English, spoken and written, without needing a comma to fill the gap. So this notion that when we use commas in a list, it’s substituting for the conjunction we only use at the end: No, that’s completely wrong. The conjunction doesn’t appear in those spots because it doesn’t appear there in spoken English either; what does appear there, and before the conjunction as well, is a very brief pause to indicate we’ve moved on to the next item. The duration of the pause is up to the speaker, but it’s always there.

Whoever came up with this idea must have been truly desperate to find any excuse not to use the Oxford comma. That’s all I can figure. Without the “commas are pauses” foundation, they had no idea what the commas were doing there and had to come up with some other explanation. The problem is that explanation makes no kind of sense, as it’s completely at odds with anything the comma does anywhere else. I’m disappointed there are thinking, literate people who’ve swallowed this idea whole. I can understand people making other rationalizations to get away from the serial comma, but this one is downright idiotic. There’s a difference between a weak argument, like the ones I addressed above, and one that’s so stupid there’s no excuse to ever believe it.

For extra stupid: One of the guys who argued, straight-faced, that the comma is for omission claims to have been a university press editor and a contributor to the Chicago Manual of Style. To which I say: Good gads. This is literally like having a math teacher tell you π and 4 are close enough, there are 200 degrees in a triangle, and 2+2=19. I will never claim to be an expert on grammar, but I know well enough when something is obviously dead wrong. I can’t even fathom how much straw-grasping you have to do to talk yourself into a position like that.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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