Monday, March 20, 2017

Comma Sutra

When and where should you insert your comma for maximum satisfaction? The style manuals don't advocate one position.

Those used by book publishers endorse the serial ("Oxford") comma, claiming you need it to clarify any list.

Those used by newspaper publishers eschew it, claiming economy should rule your writing.

Even though advocates can now cite a Maine court's decision, the serial comma is far from the law of the land.

What's your verdict?

The Yeahs

Book publishers insist the serial comma assures clarity. 

For example, because I inserted a serial comma before the coordinating conjunction "and" in the following list, you won't conclude both my followers are dead guys:

This blog is dedicated to my followers, William Strunk, and E.B. White.

The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, endorses the serial comma. You're clear that four, not two, people posed for this White House guest:

She took a photograph of her parents, 
the president, and the vice president.

Modern American Usage also endorses the serial comma, on grounds that it's harmless.

The Nays

Newspaper publishers insist the serial comma, being far from harmless, clutters writing. 

The serial comma here feels like poke in the eye:

I can't resist watching The Three Stooges, Moe, Larry, and Curly.

And The Style Book of The New York Herald Tribune shows how the serial comma here not only clutters the sentence, but misleads you to think Smith donated the racing cup:

Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, 
the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.

The Comma Sutra

Serial comma or not, some lists are best reordered.

The Times of London once summarized a BBC travel show with this list:

The highlights of his global tour include encounters with 
Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

Yes, a serial comma would prevent you from thinking Nelson Mandela collected dildos; but he'd remain an 800-year-old demigod. The simple fix would be:

The highlights of his global tour include encounters with 
a dildo collector, an 800-year-old demigod and Nelson Mandela.

POSTSCRIPT: My rule for using the serial comma: easy does it. For in the words of the Kama Sutra:

The mind of the man being fickle, how can it be known what any 
person will do at any particular time and for any particular purpose.
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