We’ve often discussed language myths and misconceptions in this space. Some of those myths have been the belief that couple and none are always singular, that split infinitives or split verb phrases are wrong, that you shouldn’t start a sentence with and or but or end it with a preposition, that contractions are too informal. None of that is true and none supported by language experts. A misconception common among journalists is that there’s something wrong with the serial or “Oxford” comma – that is, the comma before and or or in a list. The AP Stylebook may have unwittingly contributed to this confusion by saying that we can omit the serial comma in a simple list: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. It seems unnoticed, however, that AP style demands the serial comma when the series is complex, or when the last two items run together ambiguously, or when an item in the list contains a comma. Examples: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper attitude. I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. The gist of this guideline is that we should retain the serial comma in all but the simplest and shortest list. But that’s not the way it has been assimilated. Instead, many media writers have concluded – oddly and without support – that the serial comma is wrong and should be deleted. Interestingly, even those who would delete the serial comma require, in all cases, the serial semi-colon – an even heavier separator than the comma. These exceptions and inconsistencies point to a style practice that causes more trouble than it’s worth. And it isn’t worth anything. Omitting the serial comma destroys parallel balance, forces writers and editors to decide whether this is one of those times when the serial comma is optional, and often muddies meaning. Our most authoritative authorities agree that the serial comma should be retained in all cases. Here are some excerpts from experts: In their much-revered “Elements of Style,” William Strunk and E. B. White write that in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, we should use a comma after each term (except the last, of course, which would precede a period.) They offer the following examples: Red, white, and blue. Gold, silver, or copper. He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents. Modern English Usage, H. W. Fowler: “Where more than two words or phrases or groupings occur together in a sequence, a comma should precede the and … . The ‘Oxford’ comma is frequently, but in my view unwisely, omitted by many.” The Chicago Manual of Style: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction. Examples: Attending the conference were Farmer, Johnson, and Kendrick. We have a choice of copper, silver, or gold. The owner, the agent, and the tenant were having an acrimonious discussion. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “Commas separate words in a series (a horse, a dog, and a cow); note that American English prefers and many editors require the comma after dog.” Modern American Usage, Wilson Follet, et. al.: “A widely parroted dictum is supposed to settle the issue: If you have the conjunction, you don’t need the comma. That is bad reasoning or no reasoning at all. A conjunction is a connective device, as its name announces; whereas a mark of punctuation is nothing if not separative. To insist that the first perform the duty of the second is like prescribing sand in the bearings … . It is implicit in the standard form of a series that when you write red, white, and blue, you mean red and white and blue – three equal terms … . The recommendation here is to use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances.” Webster’s New World Dictionary (AP’s dictionary): A comma is used to “separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series: The menu offered the usual choices of steak, chops, and chicken. Expect it tomorrow, next Monday, or a week from today. If you study hard, concentrate, and take your time, you are sure to pass.” The New World notes that “some writers omit this ‘series comma’” but that it is useful in “preventing ambiguities.” Line by Line, written by Claire Cook and published by the Modern Language Association: “In a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses in which a conjunction precedes only the final item, a comma should follow every item … . For example: On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged. The McGraw-Hill Style Manual: “A comma is needed for clarity before and or or in a series of three or more items.” The Dictionary of Modern America Usage, Bryan A. Garner: A comma “separates items (including the last from the next-to-last) in a list of more than two – e.g.: ‘The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons.’ Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will … . Although journalists typically omit the serial comma as a space-saving device, virtually all non-journalist writing authorities recommend keeping it.” Why do we hang onto a rule that the rest of the literate world either never heard of or rejects? Habit and tradition. Nothing else, and nothing better. (A copy editor actually said we should cut the serial comma to save space. Please. Prune one redundancy, delete one unnecessary word – we’d make enough room for a handful of serial commas.) For clarity, balance, and beauty, restore the serial comma to your work. There was never good reason to omit it.
Paula LaRocque is assistant managing editor and writing coach at The Dallas Morning News and author of Championship Writing (Marion Street Press).