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Author Topic: Using the serial comma isn't just a matter of stylistic preference  (Read 10661 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: December 17, 2010, 08:43:23 PM »

It might seem like it’s just a matter of personal stylistic preference, but unlike most journalists and writers, I am a consistent user of the serial comma in both my private correspondence and published work. The serial comma is, of course, the comma placed immediately before the conjunctions “and,” “or,” or “nor” that precedes the final item in a serial list of three or more items, as in this sentence: “The European tourist visited Manila, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Bangkok last summer.” Most newspaper writers and editors do away with that serial comma, though, and would write that sentence this way: “The European tourist visited Manila, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok last summer.”

Now the question is: Am I just being dense or bullheadead in using the serial comma when most everybody else routinely gets rid of it? I had the occasion to defend my preference when it was challenged by a foreign reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times over a year ago, and I thought of posting that defense in this week’s edition of the Forum for the appreciation of those who still have an open mind about the matter. (December 18, 2010)
   
Why I consistently use the serial comma  

Sometime ago, a foreign reader of my column in The Manila Times raised an eyebrow over my use of the comma before the conjunction “and” in this sentence: “The (author) unravels the various mechanisms and tools of English for combining words and ideas into clear, logical, and engaging writing.”

He commented: “There is a comma after the second to the last adjective, and I noted that you do this all the time. Has some authority changed convention?”

That comma that made him uncomfortable is, of course, the serial comma, which is also called the Oxford comma and the Harvard comma. It’s the comma placed by some writers like me—but avoided by most editors of Philippine newspapers and magazines—immediately before the conjunction “and,” “or,” or “nor” that precedes the final item in a list of three or more items. Admittedly, its use has remained debatable up to this day among writers and editors in various parts of the world.

Here’s how I justified my consistent use of the serial comma to that foreign reader:  

Yes, I use the serial comma all the time as a matter of stylistic choice. I just happen to have imbibed the serial-comma tradition from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. However, during my early days as a campus journalist and later as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I would routinely knock off my serial commas because the newspaper I was working with had adopted the no-serial-comma preference of American print media, particularly The New York Times and the Associated Press. If I didn’t knock off those serial commas myself, my editors would do so anyway and sullenly admonish me not to foist my personal preference over the house rule.    

But no, the convention on whether or not to use the serial comma hasn’t changed at all. I’m aware that the no-serial-comma tradition remains a widespread stylistic practice of the mass media in the United Kingdom as well as in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. But personally, I just want to be consistent after making a personal choice based on my own experience with the problems of punctuation over the years.

Of course, the usefulness of the serial comma might not be readily apparent and appreciated when the items in a sentence with a serial list consist only of a single word or two, as in the following sentences:

“She bought some apples, oranges and pears.”

“For the role of Hamlet, the choices are Fred Santos, Tony Cruz, Jimmy Reyes and George Perez.”  

But see what happens when the listed items consist of long phrases with more than four or five words:

“The major businesses in the domestic pet services industry are traditional veterinary services, fancy pet grooming and makeover shops, a wide assortment of animal and bird food, freshwater and marine fish of various kinds and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

Now, try to figure out where each enumerative item ends and begins in the phrase “freshwater and marine fish of various kinds and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

In contrast, see how clear and unequivocal the last two items in the list become when we deploy a serial comma between “various kinds” and “aquarium equipment,” as follows:

“The major businesses in the domestic pet services industry are traditional veterinary services, fancy pet grooming and makeover shops, a wide assortment of animal and bird food, freshwater and marine fish of various kinds, and aquarium equipment and supplies for industrial and home use.”

I therefore think it’s best to use a serial comma by default in such situations regardless of how long the phrase for each item is in the enumerative sequence. This way, we can consistently avoid confusing readers and avoid violating their sense of rhythm and balance. (July 4, 2009)
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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 4, 2009 © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: December 23, 2016, 08:06:32 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

Gerry T. Galacio
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« Reply #1 on: April 07, 2014, 07:05:02 AM »

[1] You can find a great infographic on the pros and cons of the Oxford comma at http://holykaw.alltop.com/the-oxford-comma-decried-defended-and-debated-infographic

[2] The Wisconsin State Supreme Court debated vigorously the use of the serial comma in “Peterson v. Midwest Sec. Ins. Co. 636 N.W.2d 727” (http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=17566). Omitting the comma led to an ambiguity in Wisconsin’s recreational immunity statute.
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