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When you open an Eric R. Johnston novel, you are transported to a place of dark creatures and dreadful nights. There is no hope and no escape; only despair. Enter if you dare.

Series of Darkness

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Rant on Serial Commas

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

What do these two statements have in common? They don't mean what they say and don't say what they mean because they are both missing an essential comma.

The meaning here, of course, is clear--that Ayn Rand and God are the parents to whom the dedication is written, and JFK and Stalin are the invited strippers. Yet, it's not that simple. In fact the dedication is meant for three different entities--parents, Ayn Rand, and God. And, no, JFK and Stalin are not strippers; they were invited in addition to strippers.

So what happened? How can there be such a clear discrepancy between what is written and the intended meaning?

Punctuation. More specifically a comma--the serial comma, the Oxford Comma, the Harvard Comma, etc. Just adding another comma after JFK or Ayn Rand makes the difference between one referent and three distinct entities.

It's so clear, so obvious but what complicates matters is different forms of writing utilize different writing guides, while different countries tend to have different standards. In the United States, the standard for most forms of formal writing is to include the serial comma. With that said, a major American Style Guide--The Associated Press Manual of Style--forbids the use of this last comma unless you have a construction where two or more separate items in the list are combined with "and" or "or." So an example, according to AP, you would use the final comma in this construction, "My family brought over games, pizza and breadsticks, and fireworks," but not in this one, "My family brought over games, food and fireworks." This exception to AP's rule is so problematic for reasons I will discuss below that they need to abolish their prohibition on the serial comma.

Before I do that, however, I need to be upfront. I've always been taught--from my earliest years--that the final comma in a series is required, never once hearing even a hint from any educator throughout my primary, secondary, and post-secondary years that this comma could ever be considered optional under any circumstances outside of newspaper articles (AP Style) that cut all the essentials to save space.

When I started editing novels a few years ago, I noticed that many writers tended to leave out the serial comma when writing their books. This, I must admit, baffled me. And it still does. Why were they adopting newspaper rules for their novels? Why were Americans adopted British, Austrailian, and Canadian rules when submitting to an American publisher? Where did this trend come from? When did it start? And why does it seem to be so prevalent among amateur writers?

I don't have an answer for these questions, but we can take a step back and ask, where did this serial comma come from in this first place? When was its use first recommended? The serial comma has been in use for a while, first included in a style guide by some guy named Collins in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Generally speaking, that's how "rules" happen. Some guy (historically a guy anyway) says it's so, writes it down, and--viola!--the commandment is set in stone!

The rule goes something like this. Say you describe the American flag's colors. Is it red, white, and blue? Or red, white and blue. Collins argued these two phrases mean entirely different things. "Red, white, and blue" indicates that the flag has red, it has white, and it has blue. Each color is enumerated separately, so they are separate colors--red, white, and blue. "Red, white and blue," on the other hand, means the flag is red with a white and blue mix accompanying it--say a light blue--which is indicated by the fact that white and blue are not enumerated as separate entities in the list. They are not equal to the red individually, but only together.

Yet, when it comes to grammar, nothing is set in stone, nothing is agreed upon forever, and everything is dynamic. That's the way it is; that's the way it should be. Language evolves, language changes, and how we express that change must be reflected in our writing. So is there something worthwhile to this trend to eliminate what has been for a hundred years considered required punctuation?

Unfortunately, there just isn't. Not that I can see anyway. The "red, white and blue" example above is a clear reason, but let's revisit the original examples for a moment. To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. These are meant to be lists, yet because of the missing comma, they are appositions. "JFK and Stalin" is a noun phrase that refers to "strippers." "Ayn Rand and God" is a noun phrase that refers to "my parents." That is the way it is written, and that is the way it is read, so any reader would have no reason to think otherwise. If the reader meant something else--such as three entities instead of one--there is an error on the author's part that s/he would need to correct.

AP's exception to their rule is problematic. In the event that it clarifies meaning, you should use the comma (specifically when "and" or "or" play other roles in the list in addition to signifying the end). This standard, however, makes little sense because it creates more problems than it solves. It creates an inconsistency in what lists look like. The way you create a list should be the same throughout a piece of work. Not changed willy-nilly to resolve problems caused by omitting a necessary punctuation mark. Since there has never--that I have found--been a compelling or worthwhile reason put forth to cut serial commas, I argue the best approach is to stop this madness and go with what makes sense, which is to include every comma in a series.

To conclude this rant, I'll say I'm willing to examine my views on everything grammar, not only as a writer but as a reader, and I have, but my study of this topic only reinforces my lifelong view that all the commas in a series--including the serial comma--are essential. I'm all for cutting commas that can make writing seem cluttered or choppy, but I would argue--strongly--that the serial comma is the one comma that should never be cut under any circumstances provided the series construction requires any commas at all.

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