Don’t let the serial comma die

Book editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden unearthed a stark example of why the serial comma must live on, from a review of a documentary about the life of country singer Merle Haggard:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

The absence of a comma in a sentence like this can fundamentally change the reader’s understanding of the writer’s intent. Without the comma, Kristofferson and Duvall could be mistaken by a naive reader as the ex-wives of Haggard.

As an news editor who has been taught the virtue of brevity, I’ve mostly abandoned the serial comma, but this single sentence has convinced me that it’s not such a simple matter – this letting go of a standard of punctuation. Why should we get rid of it, anyway? In a society dominated by IM chats and text messages, the fewer characters in your message the better. But in real writing that’s fit for print or online publication, why do we need to rid ourselves of the serial comma?

The Chicago Manual of Style, the standard for written grammar and style for American English, still considers the serial comma to be standard grammar but the Associated Press Style Book, which nearly all journalists use for guidance on grammar, advocates the removal of the serial comma. Why does journalistic style demand the removal of the serial comma? It’s the same reason that journalistic writing in general is so spare and concise. The printed word has historically been very expensive, especially for a newspaper that is setting type and printing pages on a daily basis.

As blogger Melissa Donovan noted:

Traditionally, the serial comma was standard fare in written English. However, once the printing press entered the equation, newspapers decided to forgo the serial comma to save space. That’s why journalism style guides such as The New York Times Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook do not include serial commas in their guidelines.

I haven’t written for a print publication since 2006, so I’m tempted to start using the serial comma a little more. My publication is between copy editors at the moment, so this might be the subject for discussion once we bring a new one on board.

(H/T to Stephen Bainbridge and Jeff Weintraub).




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