Every so often — frankly, all too often — I find myself drawn into a doozy of a debate on Twitter about the serial comma. Yes, really.
Also known as the Oxford comma, it’s specifically the comma that follows the penultimate item in a series: for example the second comma in “songs, tunes, and ditties.”
Usually, the serial comma is completely unnecessary, and consequently it’s almost completely absent from newspapers and nearly as much from magazines, outside of Old School holdouts like The New Yorker. (Not so much in books, I should note.)
Nevertheless, several people I respect, like and esteem are fervent advocates on Twitter, Facebook and the like for the serial comma, putting me in the odd, strange and divisive position of having to explain why I don’t want extraneous, supercilious and clunky punctuation in my writing.
Rather than re-explaining my position again and again on Twitter, I decided to put it here once and for all, so that I can simply point to this post and move on.
First, let’s be clear. We’re talking about rules, not exceptions. If there is a sentence construction that would unmistakably benefit from a serial comma, then by all means use it. For example, Grammarly cites the sentence, “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” If you’re worried that people will think your parents are a famous singer and an even more famous egg, feel free to go gaga for your serial comma.
But such a scenario, in which the final two items of a list will be confused for the first, is rare. In a typical list of multiple items, the serial comma serves no purpose. The “and” stands in for the comma.
“Apples, grapes and bananas” is clear. A serial comma in “apples, grapes, and bananas” adds redundancy, not clarity. If, without a serial comma, your reader thinks that grapes and bananas are types of apples, you’ve got bigger problems than punctuation.
To take another example (look at this site for more such examples), say you were to write a sentence ending in “… the few, the proud, the Marines.” Because you don’t have an “and” before the final item of the list, you need a final comma.
But now consider a sentence that ends with “… the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines.” There’s no serial comma, but you still have 100 percent clarity.
It doesn’t matter how much you lengthen the sentence. You can have “pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars, green clovers, blue diamonds, purple horseshoes and red balloons,” and as much as you might call for cereal commas, you still won’t need a serial comma.
If the serial comma were so important, then people would need it just as much in a list of two items as in a list of three. Somehow, the same people who contend that you must write “Ruffles, Fritos, and Doritos” would have no problem with “Coke and Pepsi.” Why? How is one any more unclear than the other?
A serial comma is like an airbag in an automobile. If you crash, you’re gonna want that airbag to be there to save you. But that doesn’t mean you drive with the airbag inflated on every drive you take. Keep the serial comma for emergencies, but don’t wear it out.
Ask yourself, among the hundreds, thousands or millions of sentences you read in publications that don’t use the serial comma, how many times you’ve been confused by a sentence because it doesn’t have a serial comma. I expect the ratio is infinitesimal.
The goal for grammar is clarity and economy. In practice, the serial comma removes economy without adding any clarity. That’s bad.
Growing up, I was taught to put two spaces in between sentences, on school reports for example. Then when I moved into journalism, the instruction was to only use one space — again, for economy. Did I rebel because of how I had been raised? Nope. I adapted to what made sense.
Serial comma reactionaries (or serial-comma reactionaries, to be fair) need to do the same: today, tomorrow and forever.