21 June 2014

On the (ahem) SERIAL Comma

The fucks one gives about the Oxford comma should start with the fact that everyone calls it that. The Chicago Manual of Style humbly calls it the "serial comma," even though naming rights could well go to the university press whose style guide has codified its use for copy editors everywhere.  Oxford hasn't held the line; the University of Chicago has.  Unlike the "Chicago serial comma"--that brisk tool of clarity, the "Oxford comma" reeks of elitism, which is perhaps why its detractors prefer to call it that.  "Elitist, Superfluous, or Popular?" asks the headline of the much-linked FiveThirtyEight story describing a poll taken on the issue.  Those are, apparently, the only options.  Of course, "Oxford comma" connotes both elitism and superfluity--it lounges by the tennis court or cricket field in its crisp button-down-collar shirt, sleeves rolled up, shirt-tail hanging out, sipping gin, all the trappings of privilege with no sign of the exploited labor that sustains it. It's a heedless, unnecessary comma. The "serial comma" on the other hand, is hard at work disambiguating long sequences of words. The truth, however, is that my affection for the serial comma is aesthetic. I like the way it gives a sentence a visual anchor--those final two terms in a series always look like they could drift off into the ether, unheeded and irrelevant. The comma affirms their shared relevance to everything that has come before. Yes, it distinguishes appositives from terms in a series, and its absence can produce hilarity:

Never mind that in the real world the context often makes the meaning clear (would anyone be led by a misplaced comma to believe that Stalin is a stripper?).  Rearranging the terms in these series would also eliminate the confusion: "Stalin, the strippers and JFK," "Wonder Woman, Superman and my parents," "Washington, the rhinocerii and Lincoln."  Genuine confusion generally only emerges from a series of terms when it is so complex that it has to be punctuated with semicolons, rather than commas.  Eliminating that final semi-colon before the final "and" can distort the relationship of the terms in the series--but at that point the prose is generally so turgid and unreadable that the errant semi-colon is the least of its problems.

The serial comma may not be the bulwark of reason and order that its supporters claim, but that's no reason to eliminate it.  In a world of dwindling resources, why not be generous with those that are renewable and sustainable, pleasing to the eye and the sense?  The serial comma stands ready to serve, even when it is not, strictly speaking, needed.


  1. Fortunately commas are cheap! It's possible that less energy is spent making the "," than would be spent moving clauses around to make sure they are understandable. Someone should do a study...

  2. Great post, and nice to see the word however correctly positioned.