I7: "Use Serial Comma" option

Important news! :wink:

cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/ … nContent.3

Robert Rothman

I would cover you with spit from a thousand kisses* for this “Finally!” moment you just gave me!

You know, upon discovering IF I started to pay a bit more attention to English syntax. Up until then, my “ands” when ending a listing were always comma orphans. In Portuguese, the comma before the conjunction “and” is only used in very specific cases, and never in a listing, so I took a while to get used to this. I admit I didn’t went out of my way to study the rules (I just absorbed the patterns I got from the books I read), so the reason for this Oxford comma was beyond me.

Up until today.

[size=85]* No, actually I wouldn’t.[/size]

I personally hate, loathe and despise the Oxford Comma. I refuse to use it. I refuse to acknowledge its existence. Maybe it’s the way I speak or write. To me, the comma indicates a very brief pause. “Hate[pause]loathe[pause]and despise” doesn’t sound like natural language to me.

Use it, of course, if there’s no conjunction to tie the remaining word or clause to the rest of the sentence. But if the conjunction is there, why does the Oxford Comma need to be? What exactly is its purpose? What role does it serve? It’s redundant, ridiculous and unnecessary.

The “ambiguity” created by its omission seems contrived by the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence, proper or no. On Wikipedia, and in the article posted by Mr. Rothman, the classic line is quoted:

“To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”.

I personally have zero difficulty understand that her parents are obviously not Ayn Rand and God. (Or were they…?) This, to me, appears to be allowing the grammatical structure to override the context of the statement, which I believe is insulting to the intelligence of the reader. I believe that this quote is used solely as a weapon to encourage the use of the Oxford Comma.

The second example:

“Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Again… I know that Robert Duvall cannot be a wife because he is not a woman. At best, he’s a life partner. But the context of the sentence indicates that he’s NOT a life partner. At least not to whoever the interview was about. As for Kris, well, that name is a little trickier to pin down.

The final example:

“My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast.”

This is inflicted ambiguity, born entirely out of the habit of pairing bacon with eggs. This is a cultural habit, not a grammatical one and thus a poor example. Instead, the statement should read:

“My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon, eggs and toast.”

BAM. No more ambiguity. “Bacon and eggs” is no longer a single item, which it shouldn’t be to begin with, thus eliminating the need for both the extra conjunction and the Oxford Comma.

To me, the em dash would remove much of this ambiguity. I believe we should lobby for it’s increased application.

“To my parents – Ayn Rand and God.” (Now we know she was a nut.)

“Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives – Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” (Guess Robert is a common girl’s name where they’re from.)

It, of course, has no place in the third example, because that one is human idiocy.

I’m not a “Grammar Nazi”. I know what I like.

And I don’t like the Oxford Comma.

[Edit: Typo correction.]

Language is Open Source. You can modify it the way you like, but it’s your own responsibility to keep it compatible with other versions.

Very nice. The problem is that no one really understands the source code.

Well, having (unintentionally) breached the worm tin, I might as well go on record as saying that my own preference is not to use the serial comma, save in those rare circumstances in which it truly does avoid a possible misunderstanding. At the same time, I am not offended if I read a piece of writing by an author who prefers to use it. (I am not quite so tolerant when it comes to some other grammar/usage issues – woe unto anyone who dares even to think of splitting an infinitive in my presence! :imp: )

Like I4L, I am something of a fan of the em-dash. This one kind of hits home; not long ago, I received an editor’s markup of an article I wrote for a professional journal, only to discover that the editor had used a very heavy hand in changing em-dashes to commas. I let it stand in those cases where it really didn’t matter (albeit with a general complaint about editors substituting their own personal preferences for those of the author) but made them restore the em-dashes in a number of places where the substitution either altered the meaning or just interfered with the flow of prose.

Robert Rothman
(Self-Proclaimed Chief of the Language Police)


Neither would I. But in fact it requires an extra mental step for us to determine the intended meaning of the sentence. Part of the purpose of standard English orthography is to make the meaning clear, and the need for clarity dictates that ambiguities should be resolved when it is practical to do so. The addition of an innocent little comma is surely not too labor-intensive for you to have any rational grounds for rejecting it.

The same reasoning applies to the dangling participle. Consider:

We can all see that it was the narrator who knocked on the door, not the butler. Nonetheless, the rule for this type of usage does not admit of any exceptions: The noun or pronoun that most closely follows the introductory participial phrase MUST be the subject of the action set forth in the participle. Any good editor would correct this sentence to:

Of course, there are also editors who have been taught that Passive Verbs Are Bad. They might even turn the correct sentence into the incorrect one. Such people are idiots.

Returning to the serial comma, here’s a line from a poem by Robert Frost:

Now, Frost was an educated man, and certainly used the serial comma. So what’s going on here? If an editor who DOES use the serial comma “corrects” the poem, it changes Frost’s meaning. Frost meant “dark and deep” to be an appositive phrase elucidating “lovely”. That is, the woods are lovely in that they are dark and deep. He did not intend “lovely, dark, and deep” to be set side by side as three independent adjectives describing the woods.

Thus it is simply not possible to understand Frost’s poem in the absence of a clear tradition of the use of the serial comma. The reader’s ability to decipher ambiguous sentences never gets a shot at this one – we NEED the serial comma as a normal usage so that its absence can be used to mean something entirely different.

That would drive me crazy too. I use em-dashes carefully, but without prejudice. My personal rule of thumb is only to allow one pair, in cases where they are paired, per paragraph, or one single em-dash per paragraph where they are not paired – and there’s a reason for that. The em-dash is a big, obvious punctuation mark – bigger and more obvious than the period or the comma – so if you use more than one – as here – the logical structure of the paragraph is less apparent to the eye.

I once worked for a magazine editor who was of the opinion that people don’t talk in parentheses. If you were writing up an interview (which we did a lot), he wouldn’t let you use parentheses within quotes. Everybody has their little twitches.

I can think of a couple of politicians who apparently claim such descent.

This may depend on what state you’re in (or what state Mr. Duvall is in).

Robert Rothman

I’d go for “After I knocked on the door, the butler admitted me.” Or “I knocked on the door and the butler admitted me.” Or “I kicked the door open and shouted ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny!’” You can’t really lay down a hard and fast rule.

Ah, I’d never realized that before – I’d always assumed that it was because there isn’t a pause in the melody.

Oh boy are we airing our grammar peeves? Sweet!

I love the Oxford comma. Love, love, and love. It appeals to my visual aesthetic. So I’ll always use it in my own writing, but I don’t particularly care whether or not anyone else does.

I do not care at all about split infinitives, except when someone changes the meaning of their sentence because they’re fetishistically avoiding split infinitives. English is not actually Latin, you know.

Honestly the only major grammar peeve I have is the supposedly gender-neutral use of male pronouns. Singular ‘they’ all the way, cats and kittens.

I humbly apologize to all for having started this mess.

By way of explanation (although not excuse), I would say that my original intention was not to start a pissing match about what is or is not correct; I simply thought it was mildly amusing to see an article about a point of usage on which Inform 7 specifically gives the author a choice, and wanted to share it with the group. (Incidentally, until I read the article I was totally unaware that the serial comma was in any way associated with Oxford University.)

Of course, notwithstanding my original innocent intention, I confess to having perpetuated the pissing match with my unnecessary, gratuitous and uncalled-for crack about those illiterate, ignorant and obstinate fools, morons and cretins who insist on splitting their infinitives.

Oh, damn! Now I’ve gone and done it again by opening the door to a debate over whether the use of a serial comma in a list of adjectives raises any different issues than its use in a list of nouns. Maybe I should just keep my foot in my mouth where it will keep any more words from coming out! :blush:

Robert Rothman
(Who, despite this embarrassing episode, will not resign from my post as Self-Proclaimed Chief of the Language Police)

I much prefer the serial comma, but my personal bugaboo is parentheses. I abuse them. I stick entire sentences inside them, like a post-it note stuck on a paragraph. If I’ve had too much caffeine they’ll turn into em-dashes, and then I know I need to go lie down awhile.

In the year I spent studying in Germany, a both difficult and frustrating time, the teachers, who were not the most straightforward among educators, unwittingly taught me to hate relative clauses and complex-compound sentences. With a passion.

I’m quite convinced this is perfectly possible

In Swedish orthography, the serial comma is just plain wrong. Also, it is one aspect of writing where anglicist influences seems to have had no effect on Swedish usage or “abusage” whatsoever; you just don’t see Swedish people use a serial comma when writing Swedish, regardless of how well or bad they conform to other conventions of written Swedish.

And I (being Swedish and not having heard of the serial comma till my late twenties) still have no problem understanding the semantic distinction between the appositive use of “dark and deep” that Frost uses and the cor-ordinated series of adjectives “lovely, dark, and deep”. Moreover, I must have read hundreds of similar appositive phrases in Swedish, and I’m pretty sure I interpreted the vast majority of them (correctly) as appositive.

I guess that if you’re brought up in a linguistic community where there is no tradition at all to use the serial comma, what you develop is not an inability to resolve the ambiguities of sentences like “Skogen är skön, mörk och djup …” (meaning either “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” or “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”), but a readiness to resolve it with recourse to contextual clues other than punctuation.

Further, I suspect that this ability is present with people whose native language is English, as well. Frost’s poem can’t very well be impossible to understand to native English speakers if read aloud (in which case you can’t see either the commas or the absence of them). And appositive phrases, even in such potentially ambiguous contexts as in Frost’s poem, surely, must be an older feature of English than any consistent punctuation.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’d get this forest right on a first reading without stumbling. To make the sentence clear, I’d like other punctuation (as mentioned earlier): “Skogen är skön - mörk och djup”. (Or maybe “Skogen är skön: mörk och djup.”?) Then I’d be able to sight-read it without hesitation.

All very true. But: A writer, and most especially a poet, needs to make use of language (written language, in this case) in the most precise manner that is available. We dare not promote a situation in which the careful writer has fewer tools.

To take an even better example from poetry, e. e. cummings wrote, for the most part, without capital letters. This was a conscious orthographic decision. You can argue, if you like, that cummings’s poems would be just as comprehensible if they were “corrected” by a copyeditor so that standard capitalization was employed. But something would be lost – something important!

Are you kidding? This is one of the most interesting discussions presently active. It even made me go back to humbly study (hey, I even learned this is a split!) my own language’s quirks. I now have a Portuguese grammar in my desk because of you :’)

(Edit: You also made me finally understand the darn Vampire Weekend song)