Killing the extra comma

Serial commas are academic but not very useful.

by Helen, published 03/13/2014
business writing This post is by Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene, authors of The Business Style Handbook, An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job. Want to see copy editors and strict grammarians break out in a knock-down-drag-out? Ask them to weigh in on the necessity of using the serial comma. A contingent of the editorial crowd in the States remains devoted to the serial comma, maybe because it is also referred to as the “Oxford” or “Harvard” comma (making the serial comma sound a bit more legitimate than it actually is). But what’s its real purpose? The serial comma is used in a series of three or more terms: cauliflower, peas, and carrots. It is most often employed to avert confusion, as in the following construction: Judy ate yogurt, cheese, and bacon and eggs. (The serial comma is after the word cheese and before the first and.) Another classic defense of the serial comma is in this construction: I am going to Europe to visit my cousins, Queen Elizabeth, and the Pope. (By inserting a comma before the and, you clarify for the reader that Queen Elizabeth and the Pope are not your cousins.) Maybe a case can be made for its use, but the lifespan of the serial comma seems to be nearing an end. Language is dynamic. Nowadays, the serial comma is not used by the majority of writers, and, like it or not, that’s what shapes a language. As far as language goes, majority (usage) wins. Whether you agree or not, archaic punctuation usually succumbs to a timely death. In fact, any grammar rule that is cumbersome or complicated is pretty certain to eventually fizzle out (notice the split infinitive?). A case in point is what the late New York Times language pundit William Safire said about the correct use of whom vs. who: “The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence.” Like the who/whom usage rule, the serial comma is fussy, so we suggest you put the serial comma out of its misery once and for all. Here are a few more reasons to kill the serial comma:
  • Never underestimate the reader. (Very few readers are going to think your cousins are Queen Elizabeth and the Pope.)
  • The digital world whittles writing down to its essentials. Adding an unnecessary comma slows the writing process.
  • Many people don’t use the serial comma correctly. There is no need, for instance, to put a comma in the following construction: red, white, and blue. The comma before and is redundant.
  • The AP Stylebook and the New York Times Stylebook (both used primarily by journalists) discourage the use of the serial comma as does The Business Style Handbook (used primarily by business writers).
  • According to the Oxford Dictionary, the “Oxford” comma is “optional.” Options often drive writers to stylebooks to double-check the rule.  Why not just make a decision once and for all!
  • Less is more, especially when it comes to punctuation.
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