Settling the Serial Comma


Oh dear.  All this fuss about one little piece of punctuation, one little mark.  Not even a mark.  Maybe half a mark.  It’s slightly more than a period.  It’s a runny period.  It’s a period that has its period and doesn’t know it, so there’s – stuff – dripping out from under it.  We all know how some people get a little nuts during that time.  I guess that means a comma is female, a drippy comma some people want nothing to do with.  Poor comma.  No wonder she’s angry.  You’d be angry too if so many people wanted to get rid of you.  I’ve asked those people why they don’t like you, but all they say is “because we don’t need her.”  That’s hardly an explanation.

Seriously though, I’m tired of articles by people who, as far as I know, have very little credibility when it comes to language usage and training other than to have written their opinions on a website.  Yes, yes, I do that too, but I also had over three dozen years of training and practice before I got to this point.  I have over 160 college credits and three state-stamped pieces of paper that certify I know what the hell I’m talking about.  And what do the “serial killers” have?  Well, other than attitude and persistence, I’m not really sure.  What they also don’t have is patience, and I’ll prove it.

We don’t need the comical cartoons that attempt to support the comma.  You know, the ones such as “the strippers, JFK and Stalin” or “Let’s eat Grandma,” which is about a different comma.  There was a successful book about someone who “eats, shoots, and leaves.”  I’m not really sure if that one applies because I haven’t read the book.  Why?  I don’t need to read the book.  After 25 years of teaching English and grammar, I have solid credibility.  I learned the rules.  In fairness, I also know that language is fluid and rules change when necessary.  Things change.  What “is” today may not “be” tomorrow.  Of course, like mutations that allow a fish to walk on sand, changes don’t happen that quickly.  They happen, no doubt there, but they might take a few hundred years.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever rolled your eyes when someone said “aks” instead of “ask.”  Now put your hands down because it was actually a word a few hundred years ago.  The full word – or words – were “ascian” and “acsian.”  Or, “AHK-see-AHN” and “AHS-key-AHN.”  They were Middle English words used in different areas of the Empire.  Ascian was used in a more industrial northern area, while acsian was used in the southern farming areas.

When immigrants came to America, the farmers who said “aks” naturally went to the southern, farming states while those who said “ask” were in the more industrial northern states.  Some have made the observation that “aks” is often used in urban areas and often by African-Americans as well as Caucasians living in mixed populations.  Through the inhuman conveyor that was slavery, African-American learned the use of “aks” from the southern farmers, the plantation owners who were also saying “aks” because it was a regionalism of language, just as people of certain areas say “soda” while others say “pop.”

Eventually, ascian was shortened to asc, and then ask.  Acsian became acs, or aks, but nobody who says it will spell it that way.  It’s something that was passed down through generations of people, mostly slaves, who did or could not read.  They learned language by using and hearing it, and that’s completely understandable.  I know language changes and evolves, and I know there may be a day when there is a good reason to drop the serial or Oxford comma.  That day, however, is not coming any time soon.

When I have asked those who trash the serial comma to explain why, their only answer is that “it isn’t needed” or “it’s a waste of time.”  To them I would say, “Your appendix is no longer needed.  Would you like me to remove it for you?”  Their answers to both questions are predictable for two reasons.  First, nobody wants an unnecessary amputation.  Second, because the only people in my limited contact who have called for dropping the comma are younger people.  It wasn’t until I was recently thinking about them while showering that I realized their problem.  Wait, I don’t mean I think about young people while showering.  What I mean is a younger guy called me out on this just after mowing the lawn and before showering, so I was thinking about him.  I mean, I don’t think about young men while showering.  It just happened to be a male who said – never mind.

anti_oxford_comma_speaker_system-r6fe35c7f613c4a72b64053cc4703d223_vs8xj_8byvr_324My point is that it is younger people, the 20-somethings who think they know everything just because they know that they know everything, they want to kill the comma.  Unless highly educated, nobody under 35 is against the comma, and with good reason.  Those young whippersnappers just have not read enough and, more importantly, have not written enough to realize the importance of the comma.  If you have not immersed yourself into photography, you won’t know each nuance of the various apertures and shutter speeds.  Not until you either take thousands of pictures and see the results.  That’s called experience feedback, to which the youngsters are allergic.  They’re too accustomed to hearing “good job” instead of “well, here’s where you can improve.”  “Improve?!” they exclaim.  “But I’m perfect!  I have a thousand grade-school soccer trophies to prove it!”  Yeah, go with that.

What the anti-comma crowd does not yet or refuses to understand is how many reasons there are for the serial comma.  As stated, not enough (I didn’t say “all”) of them have read or written much of anything longer than a blog post, and it was probably only half the length of this one.  They want to claim to know everything without learning or doing anything.  They want to say the easier thing must be better or correct just because it’s easier.

There is another crowd against the serial comma, but their reason is not time or effort.  Their reason is money.  Magazines and newspapers hate the serial comma as well as two spaces after periods because, in print, space is money.  Taking up less space in a story means more space for advertisements, which means more money.  Perhaps many serial killers have grown up reading magazines that skipped the comma, and that’s part of the confusion.  Could be a contributing factor, right?  Oh well.

It seems the only thing left to do is write my views and hope the serial killers can pull away from Facebook, Big Brother, or their smart phones long enough to read this.  All of this.  And they won’t read all of this.  The proof will be in the comments left by serial killers.  They’ll out themselves by proving they didn’t even read the whole thing and thus learned nothing.  You’ll see.

In addition to not knowing why the serial comma is necessary, the youngsters also don’t realize there actually are situations in which you would NOT use the serial comma.  So if we never use the serial comma, it would cause too much confusion as to whether it was or was not a situation that actually called for it.  To the serial killers, that means thinking.  They don’t want thinking or reasoning.  They just want one method for everything, but that’s not good.  That’s like using either scissors or a buzz saw for all situations, keep one and toss out the other.  Maybe they’ll choose the buzz saw for their next haircut.

Oxford comma

So, let’s get started.

The easy example for not using the serial comma is when two items are commonly linked, such as “macaroni and cheese.”  It seems like two items, but they have been used together consistently enough that they identify one thing.  There is a distinct difference between a pile of macaroni next to a few slices of cheese as compared to the familiar blue box from Kraft that contains the ingredients for golden gooey melted heaven, an unnatural cheese-like substance poured over elbow pasta.  Because of the recognized link, any reference does not get the comma.  Thus I would write:

For lunch I had juice, a burger, and macaroni and cheese.

Notice that we also use “and” twice because one of them is embedded in the item.  One could argue, however, what if I really had a pile of rigatoni separate from but next to a few slices of Muenster or Swiss?  If so, I would instead write:

For lunch I had beer, a burger, macaroni, and cheese.

Let’s go back to the gooey cheesy/pasta heaven for a second.  To that, the serial killers might say, “Hey.  Context clues!  We know you’re probably having the Kraft version of macaroni and cheese, so you don’t need the comma.  I know what you probably mean.”  Probably?  But what if I’m not?  Is probably good enough?  Will everyone who carries a gun probably shoot someone?  Of course not.

Language removes the probable and possible through its preciseness because very often that’s all we have.  You weren’t there when I had lunch.  Therefore, you can’t be certain.  That’s why I must use or not use the comma, to make sure you know without question what I had for lunch.  That’s why, if I am talking to a room full of people and one person’s zipper is down, I won’t simply say, “Hey, your zipper is down.”  I will say, “Nathan, your zipper is down.”  Otherwise, everyone will grab their crotches.  That is why language needs preciseness.  Without it, wrong (yet funny) things will happen.

Of course a macaroni and cheese example won’t hurt anyone.  However, there are places and times when it might hurt someone, such as directions for operating heavy or medical equipment.  You can’t tell me that it can’t happen, but I can tell you that can happen.  Therefore, the serial comma is needed.  Now, how about the serial semicolon?

I visited Chicago, Illinois; Ventura, California; and Lafayette, Louisiana.

For those who might not know, when a comma within at least one part of a series, we use semicolons where the commas would have been.  Above, they appear after the states because a comma is needed between the cities and states.  Should someone feel steadfast enough to eliminate the serial comma, then what happens to that sentence?

I visited Chicago, Illinois; Ventura, California and Lafayette, Louisiana.

Now it seems that Ventura, California, and Lafayette are cities in Louisiana.  Or, it could be that Ventura and Louisiana are cities while there’s also a place called “California and Lafayette.”  Maybe it’s a college, like William and Mary.  Or maybe it’s just a big pile of shit that we will have to clean up once the youngsters have butchered our language.

In fairness, serial killers just don’t know.  Whether they were not taught or refused to learn, I can’t say.  However, it is clear they just don’t know why the serial comma is needed.  Based on most of what they write, they don’t even understand when to use a comma with a conjunction.  They don’t know the difference between a compound sentence, but that’s a post for another day.

More important than not knowing a few rules about commas is the fact that serial killers have not yet grasped the most important aspect of writing – communication.  We do not write for “us.”  Writing is selfless.  Writing is for others.  We write to transfer our thoughts to others who do not know or have not seen what we have seen.  The youngsters are selfishly focusing on their own needs – mainly the need to do as little as possible – instead of the needs of those to whom they are writing.  Serial killers are writing to broadcast their own thoughts instead of writing so others can accurately understand those thoughts.  They only care about “Good job.”  They don’t understand the value of “Thanks, I appreciate how you explained that.  However, this could be better if you…”

Just as they seek to do away with the serial comma for their own convenience, the serial killers don’t have the patience to do more, learn more, understand more, and eventually gain more.  They only know “me” and “now.”  Until they can recognize not just the undeniable loss of a series without the comma, a difference that exists not in their own head but in the reader’s head, they likely cannot recognize the need for the comma.  In a way, expecting serial killers to knowingly and willingly use the serial comma is like asking someone to enjoy a food they are convinced they dislike without having tried.

For those who want to ditch the serial/Oxford comma, here is your chance.  Show me one instance, one example, just one sentence in which not having a serial comma is better.  Show me a sentence in which taking away the comma improves the sentence.  Until you can do that, then I stick by my claim that your motivation is nothing more than selfish laziness and your motivation is fueled by the belief that doing less equals having more.  Perhaps you can change my mind, but – when it comes to writing – it will take more work than you’ve done before.



41 thoughts on “Settling the Serial Comma

  1. I just enjoy the pacing of a sentence with the serial commas. I enjoy the pause it provokes. But then again, I’m French and much prefer the slow pace of a French movie. Which is odd that the serial comma doesn’t exist in French. Never ever would we put a comma before “et” (French’s version of and) in the langue de Molière.

    I’ve not received much formal education in English whatsoever, why do I get it, and those who’ve been taught properly don’t get it? Most of my English grammar comes from Sesame Street.

    p.s. this comment was brought to you by the letter F.

    • you get it because you took the time to see and understand the logic. the “serial killers” can’t see any further than themselves, and they won’t take the time to understand its benefit.

      this reply brought to you by the number 8

      • i love the number 8, but 5 is my all-time fave.

        oh, and the double space is a nuisance with today’s software, especially so in web design. most platforms don’t know what to do with the double space when it lands on the end of a line, so the next one in the paragraph starts with a double space. when you talk of rule changes, and the need to adapt, that one is now a must. make room for the fake youngsters, this one’s imperative.

        but number 8 is rad.

      • i still use two spaces, and i probably won’t stop purely because of muscle memory. most people who complain about two spaces (not you) are too young to realize that typing classes in the 70’s and 80’s taught two spaces. so if i’ve been typing two spaces for more than 30 years, it’s hard to expect me to stop. yes, it’s easy to correct in in msword using the ‘find/replace” function – but i don’t want to. 😉

        also 9 is my favorite. it’s on almost all of my hockey jerseys from those days of learning 2 spaces. one year 9 was already taken, so i went with 3 and tried to get a little 2 as an exponent, to make it 3-squared. but they didn’t let me. bastards.

      • right. but i also remember taking a microsoft word class in the 80s as well where the first thing i was taught was to forget about the double space after the period.

        i was also going to bring back your argument about the economics of bringing it down to one space and remind you of certain words and how they changed purely for economical reasons such as programme and colour. did you know that the US is the only country to misspell so many words simply because they needed space on the typesetting macines in the early days of print?

        9 is a cool number, so was 99 if you remember who wore it (in hockey, not in 70s sitcoms). if you played derby you could totally wear 3 squared, another great reason to pick up roller skates. i wear number 66. that’s 99 upside down. and a great year for babies.

  2. Is the problem with young serial comma killers or young people? The two seem a little conflated by the end of this ☺
    I think the problem is in the name – teaching correct comma use rather than strict identification might make things easier. (We were always told to read aloud and, where you paused, put a comma.)
    As you say, ‘Language removes the probable and possible through its preciseness,’ – such a fantastic line that sounds like the start of a tongue twister.

    • i’m not sure about conflated, but it’s possible in kind of mixed them together a little.

      part of the problem – which i did not include – is that schools do not teach as much as they once did. with all the state and national testing, teachers don’t have time to adequately teach grammar and punctuation anymore, and i know this first hand because my 90 minutes of language arts was devoted to reading specifically because reading skills are more important than writing skills on those tests. writing is important on the test too, but writing is all viewed as a first draft, so they don’t score as harshly as they do for reading.

      perhaps i could have been more fair and included that. oh well.

      thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  3. I ended up with two essay-heavy degrees in my higher education. In my undergraduate degree in the US, I was marked off for not including the oxford comma. In my postgraduate degree in the UK, I was marked off for including it. For me, the oxford comma is one of those cultural quirks, alongside inverted commas (as opposed to quotation marks) and spare u’s.

    That being said, I tend to immediately lose respect for anyone who uses “aks” instead of “ask” in anything but an extremely casual setting. Perhaps I’m not as neutral as I claim to be.

    • i’m greatly annoyed by “aks.” in my 25 years of teaching, about 18 were spent in a population that used it constantly. my sister is the most highly educated woman i know. two masters degrees, a doctorate. teaches both college and elementary school. she writes questions for national exams. she says “aks” because of the urban area in which she spent her early years.

      i recently learned that there are many rules of “american” english that differ from “british” english simply because in america, they made changes just to annoy the british. things such as “color” and “colour.” i find that spitefully amazing.

      • Sadly, cultural quirks of the “aks” variety actually end up serving as economic barriers — your sister and others are more the exception than the rule, from what I have seen.

        I was shocked when I first heard the British national anthem in the UK. It was a familiar tune — I even knew the words: “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…” Yes, that’s right, we appropriated their language AND their national anthem, purely to give them a colonial middle finger. It’s a wonder that we manage to generally get along these days.

  4. alrighty then that post wins the russel ray photos award for the best post of the day week month and year

    sorry about the lack of punctuation but all of my capital letters commas periods and exclamation points seem to have gone away for the long holiday weekend

  5. 1. Don’t do the whole judging people for having smart phones thing. It’s 2014.

  6. I hear this argument, for and against, in my line of business. It is crazy how heated it becomes. I say, is it worth all the frustration, to get worked up, over a runny period? haha

    There are, of course, examples of confusion when the serial comma is not present. There are also examples of the same confusion when it is used.

    These cases fall into the rare category and I hate to see so much bloodshed over such a little thing 😛

  7. I’m old school and I find many articles in newspapers that have sentences that go on and on with little or no commas and it drives me nuts.

  8. Pingback: Writing 4.1- Stop “Being a Writer” | brainsnorts inc.

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