Let’s Get Serial

Categories: max syntax
When you have three or more elements in a series, where do you put the comma(s)? And how many do you use?


Moe, Larry, and Curly


Moe, Larry and Curly


The answer has more do to do with where you learned to write and where you are being published than with grammar itself. Much punctuation usage is a matter of publication style, not general grammar rules. Beware! The border between the two can be a dangerous zone, as borderlands so often are.


In the case of comma usage within a series of elements, it's all up to publication style. U.S. newspapers, magazines, and periodicals mainly follow the AP Stylebook, which prescribes no comma before the and in series such as the one that started this sentence. U.S. book publishers, following the Chicago Manual of Style, usually prescribe the use of the serial comma after the second element and before the third. That's not true in the UK, where book publishers generally do not use the serial comma. It's often known as the Oxford comma there, because Oxford University Press is one of the few book publishers that does use it.


Why this should be so is a matter of some conjecture. Personally, when I reflect upon the old days of hot metal type and narrow newspaper column widths, I suppose that every character counted and eliminating commas left more room for letters; thus, the journalists' disdain for the serial comma. I have no hard evidence for this. However, consider http://twitter.com, the latest digital communication craze, and its iron-clad 140-character format. As one struggles for maximum compactness of communication, it is very evident how lack of space could persuade one to permanently drop a punctuation mark (and to come up with some extremely strange abbreviations).


The reason adduced for the superiority of serial comma usage - no matter what Mrs. Stearn taught you in the tenth grade - has to do with clarity of meaning, the "prime directive" of grammar and punctuation. The perhaps apocryphal book dedication, "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God," makes clear the dangers of omitting the serial comma. Authors may on occasion be divas, but few actually claim to be semidivine. The demigod author derives from an easy misreading: The two elements after the comma can read as an appositive to the first element. (In other words, author Ayn Rand and the Supreme Being are the parents.) Other examples exist, especially when a modifier applying to the first element or two does not necessarily apply to the third: Think about studying medieval history, modern politics, and economics. To which era do your economic studies belong? Does modern modify both politics and economics, or only politics?


So, good reasons exist for preferring the use of the serial comma, but decades of publication style and preference may argue against it. The best rule is to pick one way and stick to it for each published piece, for it is variations from pattern that will divert the readers' attention to the punctuation rather than the substance. No one wants a reader to stop and note, "They put a comma here but not here; why is that?" Unless, of course, that reader is a reader of this blog, who now knows the answer.

by Peeps on ‎04-23-2009 05:36 AM
Thanks for a very helpful post! I have always been an ashamed proponent of the serial comma, without completely knowing where my obscure sense of guilt about using it came from. Ok, so I still don't know why I felt guilty, but your explanation of the dangers of going without have convinced me to cast off my guilt and go for it!
by twi-ny on ‎04-23-2009 10:40 AM

i love the serial comma!


(and moe, larry, and curly.)


by Blogger L_Monty on ‎04-23-2009 03:23 PM

I learned the AP style, and I always considered it useful for two reasons:


1. The absence of a comma preceding "and" helps to highlight when the comma is there, which is typically before another complete sentence. Rhythmically, compound sentences can work better when the reader knows that the ", and" almost exclusively indicates two linked but complete thoughts.


2. When your items in a series are three different clauses, the comma preceding the "and," much like the comma preceding it in a compound sentence, indicates a pause or breather that makes the sentence flow a little better rhythmically because you know another clause is coming. 

by Kevin on ‎04-23-2009 10:00 PM

Thanks, Ellen, for a great post here.


The folks here at the Book Clubs know I'm not a big fan of the serial comma myself (even if it IS our official style).  Personally, I use them when it's "necessary," which means, I think, that I like rules you can break at will.

by Choisya on ‎04-26-2009 09:57 AM

The dropping of the serial comma and other punctuation, like full stops between acronyms, full stops and commas after abbreviations etc. came in the 1960s when IBM did some 'time and motion' research into improving typing speeds.  It was found that the speed of producing the average typed letter could be improved significantly by dropping some punctuation, some upper case letters and using fewer spaces after full stops.  After IBM published their research many journalists adopted this style and it gradually found its way into general use.  Consider this old-fashioned way of typing a date and address at the top  of a letter:-


26th. April, 2009. 


Mrs.  A.  B.  Cee,  M.Sc., M.I.O.B., F.R.S.S.,

43,  Buckingham St.,

London, W.1.


Today it would be


26 April 2009



43 Buckingham St

London W1


There are 26 unecessary keystrokes in the first example, which is equivalent to approximately five words (an average English word is five digits long). In a day's work this amounted to a lot of unproductive typing, especially before the invention and widespread use of the 'golf ball' typewriter, when each key depression was the equivalent of lifting an ounce and holding down the shift key was the equivalent of lifting 2 lbs. 


As the original poster wrote above, the use of the serial comma depends on where you learned to use punctuation.  It is less used in the UK but that may depend on when and where you learned to type.   


People of my generation who had learned to touch-type the old way cursed their way through these changes but they did improve our typing speeds and our employers liked that:smileyhappy:.


I first worked at the Nottingham Evening Post on this monster.  A lighter version, was used by the forces during the war, which you could easily assemble and dssassemble.  Ah! Those Were The Days!




by on ‎04-26-2009 10:33 PM

Ha!  Thanks for that information, and explanation, C! 


I learned to type on one of those 'clunker-knuckle-buster-key-jammer-ribbon-eaters! Punctuation and all!  But by the time I got my first secretarial job, my boss told me I used too much punctuation! 


He said, "They don't put commas there anymore!"  I thought, how the heck do you know, you went to engineering school?!!   He was nice, though, he bought me a brand new IBM Selectric typewriter!   But, it's the least he could do, since I was the only one who could read his misspelled-structurally-original-messy-handwriting!   


p.s.  If you see a typo/misspelled word in this mess...try to ignore it? :smileyhappy:  I'm old!

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