July 03, 2003
Strunk And Disorderly

If you're going to call someone else "pretentious" and correct his punctuation, it's best to make sure that it is in fact incorrect. Last Thursday, James Capozzola, editor, publisher, and only author of the pretentiously-titled Rittenhouse Review, quoted these words from William Safire: "a column that delights, illuminates, stimulates[,] or infuriates". It was Capozzola who added the square brackets and the comma between them. His justification:

I know most newspapers have dropped the ultimate comma that helps to separate a series of three or more items -- usually to save space, but a convention also dating back to the era when type was set one character at a time -- but Safire really should know better . . .

Capozzola seems to think there is only one way to punctuate the phrase correctly. I was taught that the comma after the second-to-last item in a list is optional, and I am not the only one who thinks so (besides Safire, I mean). Thomas S. Kane's advice in The New Oxford Guide to Writing (Oxford, 1988, 288f.) seems sound, and is supported by examples:

The items in a list, or series, may be joined by coordinating conjunctions ("She bought bread and eggs and cheese") or by parataxis ("She bought bread, eggs, cheese"). The most common method is to combine parataxis and coordination, linking the last two items with and, or, or but not, and joining the others paratactically: "She bought bread, eggs, and cheese."

When a list or series is completely paratactic, commas are used between the items:

Oriental luxury goods, jade, silk, gold, spices, vermilion, jewels, had formerly come overland by way of the Caspian Sea . . . .        Robert Graves

When it is completely coordinated, the commas are usually omitted:

She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts.        Jean Rhys

In the combined method (the most frequent practice), a comma goes between each pair of paratactic elements and is optional between the final coordinated pair, the choice depending on the preference of the writer or the policy of an editor. The first of these examples uses the comma; the second does not:

Fifty years ago, when all type was set by hand, the labor of several men was required to print, fold, and arrange in piles the signatures of a book.        Carl Becker

His plan was to clinch his teeth, shut his eyes, whirl the club round his head and bring it down with sickening violence in the general direction of the sphere.        P. G. Wodehouse

But whether you choose to place a comma between the final coordinated items or to leave it out, you should follow the same practice consistently in any piece of writing.

I've quoted more than was strictly necessary, because I like the embedded quotations, particularly the last. Like Capozzola and unlike Wodehouse (or his editors), I very much prefer to insert the optional comma in my own prose, but anyone who reads widely knows that there are some thoroughly competent authors who omit it. Would Capozzola interpolate a comma when quoting Wodehouse?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 03, 2003 12:45 AM

I know that the official Associated Press style is to omit the serial comma. Personally I prefer it, but surely it's found both ways.

Posted by: John Thacker on July 3, 2003 01:48 AM

Also, the New York Times stylebook recommends against the serial comma.

Posted by: John Thacker on July 3, 2003 01:50 AM

My wife is a technical editor, and ommitting that last comma is one of the things she enforces.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) on July 3, 2003 07:26 AM

Okay, but does she enforce doubling the 'm' of 'omit' too? :*)

Posted by: old maltese on July 3, 2003 09:38 AM

No, it was just early in the a.m.

Posted by: steevil on July 3, 2003 10:38 AM

Heck, even if Safire had included the comma, the copyeditor would have excised it.

Posted by: Combustible Boy on July 3, 2003 12:15 PM

I had quite a dustup with Colby Cosh about this - he calls it the "Oxford comma" and I don't like it. But he'll give you an argument about it.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 3, 2003 01:44 PM

I prefer the presence of the comma, on the idea that punctuation signals mannerisms of speech and someone reciting a list would pause before the "and" following the penultimate item in the list. But I do not insist either way, nor do I pay heed to those who insist it must be one or the other, present or omitted. I simply assume those who insist it must be omitted have never read aloud, and those who insist it must be present have never hand-set type.

On a similar topic, I actually vary in my own writing about the rule that if a sentence ends with a parenthetical clause/expression the punctuation must go inside the parenthesis. Sometimes I do, sometimes not. When the matter inside the parentheses is not in keeping with the sentence as a whole, I may even do both -
"(...?)." or "(....)?"
which horrifies some: tough.

Posted by: John Anderson on July 4, 2003 01:59 PM

I was taught that the ultimate comma was a good idea in order to avoid the kind of confusion illustrated by this example:

"I would like to thank my parents, God and L. Ron Hubbard."

Posted by: Dr. Frank on July 6, 2003 10:27 AM

If one's parents were God and L. Ron Hubbard, that sentence would read: "I'd like to thank my parents: God and L. Ron Hubbard."

Posted by: Bill Dennis on July 6, 2003 04:30 PM

God forbid one of my parents should be L. Ron Hubbard.

I like the serial comma. I think it makes the groupings more clear.

Posted by: Meryl Yourish on July 6, 2003 10:27 PM

I believe the usual version is "my parents, Ayn Rand and God", not L. Ron Hubbard.

Posted by: Bill Woods on July 7, 2003 02:26 AM

Hmm, maybe my teachers in Punctuation 1A thought L. Ron would be less controversial than Ayn - or funnier.

Posted by: Dr. Frank on July 7, 2003 12:16 PM

It is called the Oxford Comma (that's not a Colby Cosh thing). It's also known as the Harvard Comma or the Serial Comma. It is less common in British writing, and more common in American writing. Originally, it was mandatory. Later, newspapers began to leave it out (I'm told for reasons relating to the monospaced fonts necessary on old typesetting machines). That's why the AP and the NYT leave it out.

The better practice is to use the comma. Aside from the examples listed, there are numerous circumstances where the comma is necessary to avoid confusion.

"Mom served macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and milk for lunch.


"Mom served macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly and milk for lunch."

Here's a more realistic example: If you were to write “He studied Roman history, international politics and economics” it is not obvious whether international refers only to politics or also to economics.

Because there are examples where use of the comma is absolutely necessary to avoid ambiguity, it is better to use the comma all the time, rather than to use it inconsistently (and give the appearance that you just don't know either rule).

Posted by: Spoons on July 7, 2003 09:09 PM

The serial comma removes ambiguity. Eliminate the serial comma, and you are left with sentences like:

"I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 8, 2003 12:37 PM

Google says that Rand beats L.Ron ~147 to 10, including comments on this blog. I've heard the Rand version several times but I'd never heard the alternate before.

Posted by: Bill Woods on July 8, 2003 04:37 PM

We were taught to omit the terminal comma except where ambiguity would arise.This was at a private school in the UK in the '70's. I think the general lesson to be drawn is that there is no substitute for reading what you have written.

Posted by: David Gillies on July 8, 2003 06:45 PM

As Sir Ernest Gowers says, "The use of commas cannot be learned by rule ... The correct use of the comma—if there is such a thing as "correct" use—can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste."

His guide to this particular case states:

"In such a sentence as:

The company included Ambassadors, Ministers, Bishops and Judges.

commas are always put after each item in the series up to the last but one, but practice varies about putting a comma between the last but one and the and introducing the last. Neither practice is wrong. Those who favour a comma (a minority, but gaining ground) argue that, since a comma may sometimes be necessary to prevent ambiguity there had better be one there always.

Supposing the sentence were:

The company included the Bishops of Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, and Bath and Wells.

the reader unversed in the English ecclesiastical hierarchy needs the comma after Bristol in order to sort out the last two bishops. Without it they might be, grammatically and geographically, either (a) Bristol and Bath and (b) Wells, or (a) Bristol and (b) Bath and Wells. Ambiguity cannot be justified by saying that those who are interested will know what is meant and those who are not will not care."

Those who might like to read Gowers' classic The Complete Plain Words, the essential guide to clear yet elegant English, can find it here.

Posted by: Iain Murray on July 9, 2003 10:49 AM

So, has anyone thanked their parents, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard?

Posted by: charles austin on July 10, 2003 03:10 PM

I think there's someone who would work even better than Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard:

"I would like to thank my parents, Madonna and God."

Posted by: Eric James Stone on August 27, 2003 03:08 AM

Reasons against the final serial comma:
When a series is not ambiguous, it saves space.

Reasons for the final serial comma:
It eliminates ambiguity and maintains consistency.

If consistency is important to your writing or your organization's writing, which I should hope it would be, there clearly is no argument. The "Fors" have it. Consider the following:

I took courses in political science, corporate accounting and tax laws.

To maintain consistency, no comma before the "and" in the example above would in fact be correct if one took a single course in corporate accounting and tax laws. Adding the comma would then signify that corporate accounting and tax laws were two separate courses.

"I took courses in political science, corporate accounting, and tax laws."

I'd like to thank my kids, Jesus and Moses.

Posted by: The Motif on November 5, 2003 12:25 PM

It strikes me that, if we were to credit the author with a general tendency to avoid ambiguous constructions, we would indeed expect said author to write "My parents: Ayn Rand and God," as opposed to "My parents, Ayn Rand and God" if what the author really intended was to reference his divine/objectivist heritage. However, because I like the example, particularly in its admonitory function, I would like to point out that it could be rescued by being placed in the first of a stacked pair of subordinate clauses, thus:

It went against the tenets of my parents, Ayn Rand and God, tenets I held most dear, but I simply couldn't shake the feeling that sometimes, "A" isn't "A."

Posted by: Yet Another Grammar Nerd on February 17, 2004 06:41 AM