A Serial Debate

Recently, I received a message from a friend asking me to settle a debate at her office. What’s interesting is this is not the first time I was asked to intervene in a workplace over this controversial topic. What subject could possibly require editorial intervention? The Oxford comma of course! Also known as the serial comma, it’s the one rule that seems to incites passionate feelings.

But why is there such a debate over whether a comma should come before an “and” or “or” when listing three, four, or more things? Well, it usually boils down to if the Oxford comma is correct. Yes. So it's wrong if you think it over, make a decision and don’t include that extra comma? No. You can choose to use or not use a serial comma. But what I just did is wrong. Because what I just did was not use it consistently.

The reason the Oxford comma sparks debate is that it’s a question of style, not grammar. We all know that ending a sentence without punctuation is wrong Just using a capital letter is a cue, but we need punctuation to know definitively where one sentence ends and the next begins to make what is written easy to comprehend. We also know that there are different tenses that indicate if we wrote, are currently writing, or will write something in a manner that is grammatically correct. That’s why the singular first person imperfect tense of “to write” doesn’t stir debate. “I was writing” is the only correct answer.

Style isn’t like grammar, though. Style is more flexible and subject to personal choice. The key is that you make a decision on a style element and you stick with it for the whole document. You can use the Oxford comma every time, or you can never use it. But you can’t use it sometimes, and not others in the same document. (Unless, perhaps, you are writing a blog post about the use of the serial comma.) The main reason the Oxford comma comes up so much is it’s one of the more noticeable differences in two major styles used in English. AP style, which is often taught in public schools and is the standard for journalists, does not use an Oxford comma. Most book publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style, which does use the Oxford comma.

When you think about it, who uses and does not use it makes sense. A journalist is writing in brief, focusing on facts and trying to be succinct. An extra comma is just taking up precious space and is probably not needed for readers to follow the text.

In books, however, sentences can become more complex, they often have more words as the word count isn’t as limited, and the author may write in a style that creates much longer sentences, not to mention there may be a subordinate clause involved, so the extra comma comes in handy for clarity. For those writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, that extra comma can also be used deliberately for effect.

“Who’s coming to the party?”

“Oh, Cindy, Theo, Sasha, John and Lisa, Kelly and Wade, Joe and David, and Gerald.”

The end of that sentence would look a bit odd without the serial comma. “…Joe and David and Gerald” is just too many ands. But we need those ands, because they tell us who the couples are. So why not put Gerald at the beginning, with the other singles? Because the author wants Gerald to stand out to the reader. That serial comma helps to set Gerald apart, doesn’t it? How do you suppose the other person responds? “Oh come on, you invited Gerald?” or “Really? Gerald is going to be there? I haven’t seen him in ages!” Or maybe Gerald isn’t as important to the speaker as the others, he’s an afterthought. We’d need to know more of the story to be sure. But that would make this post far too long.

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