Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Serial Commas: To Use or Not to Use, That Is the Question

I do a lot of editing at work, and one of the main annoyances I see over and over again is the missing comma before a conjunction in a series of three or more items: red, white and blue. Unless you are writing a newspaper article, a proven venue for saving space, in most American style guides, this is incorrect grammar usage and is considered the Wrong Rule. The phrase should read: red, white, and blue.

Now before you get riled and swear to me that everyone has accepted this grammatical faux pas, that it’s a matter of preference, let me cite the sources I use as my foundation.

» Chicago Manual of Style
» American Psychological Association (APA) Style
» The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
» Elements of Style
» Modern American Usage: A Guide.
» A Manual for Writers
» Gregg Reference Manual
» Scientific Style and Format

Most people who argue for ommision quote from newspaper style guides, which include the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. Some British writers also have jumped on this grammatical band wagon. You might ask why most American standard usage keeps this vital comma. The reason is to prevent confusing combinations of the final two words: eggs, bacon, and toast. “Bacon and toast” is not one idea. If I write eggs, toast and jam, and bacon or eggs, bacon, and toast and jam, the potential confusion becomes apparent.


Rebecca Irvine said...

This editing mistake is one of my biggest pet peeves! It so annoys me when the comma before the "and" in a list is left out. Thanks for reminding us to get it right.

Peggy Shumway said...

And what makes me even more grieved is when I send the branch managers my corrections. They ignore my plea to add the commas, and I have to let the mistakes go through as they are. I think they went to the same school.

Shelli said...

I remember being taught in school to leave out that little comma. It has taken me awhile to get my head around the "new" rule, but I'm finally caving in. I still have problems with the new "adding an 's after an s" rule (Howells's).

Anonymous said...

The poor comma. It sometimes gets over worked and then again, it is not used enough, especially when you want to stop a sentence and it keeps on rambling, because that little comma can keep you on the roller coaster as long as you want.

I remember being taught to put a comma before and, and then being taught to delete it. Isn't the English language hard?

I always enjoy visiting your blog but need a reminder to peek at your latest words of wisdom.

barbara b