There are exceptions to every rule … except this one.  Sorry, journalists.  You’re just wrong for omitting the serial comma.  Dead wrong.

We are no longer living in the age where every character costs money.  We no longer have to compromise clarity for the sake of reigning in overhead.  That extra comma is now free.  It’s easy to type, it takes up almost zero space, and it increases the clarity of your series by leaps and bounds. The omission of the serial comma (or Oxford comma) originated back in times when printers used movable type — characters that were literally movable blocks.  Imagine if instead of a keyboard, you had to type with dozens of ink stamps — each character on a separate stamp.  Well, if each stamp cost money, and adding one comma meant you had to physically shift over every stamp after it, well yeah, you might just omit it and live with the loss of readability, however slight or great (Law professor Stephen Bainbridge calls it a “throwback” to the old days of manual typesetting).  But this is the age of technology, and adding a comma is a snap … and a free snap, at that.  So …. add it, please.  Your readers will be forever grateful.

Consider these examples with no serial comma:

Jack, Tom and Jerry are coming.

Who’s coming exactly?  Are we telling Jack that Tom and Jerry are coming?  Or are all three coming?  With the serial comma, it becomes, “Jack, Tom, and Jerry are coming” (all three of them) — and all is well in Camelot.  How about when we get into complex series …

I’ve lived in Memphis, Tennessee; Cairo, Egypt and Paris, France.

Ok, so I suppose you could figure out what this means by context clues.  But why force your readers to work harder than they have to?  It’s much, much simpler to add the final serial comma before the “and” (or semi-colon in the case of a complex series) and call it a day: “I’ve lived in Memphis, Tennessee; Cairo, Egypt; and Paris, France.”

Here’s one from a motion I was hired to write a response to:

“…None saw, was in a position to see or encountered any misconduct” and “none can speak as to the incident which precipitated his arrest.”

Woe is me.  Comma advocates, unite!  This sentence has potentially jeopardized its substantive content for the sake of sparing a serial comma (and another one that should separate the two independent clauses).  Now, let me warn that most lawyers actually overuse commas in most instances.  But for some reason the serial comma is lost on us.

Perhaps this sentence would have been clearer if written this way — each item in the series clearly delineated, and all verbs parallel (also, avoid funky subject pronouns like “none” … who but grammar nerds can really confidently conjugate a verb with a subject like “none”?):

“…No one was in a position to see, no one saw, and no one personally encountered any misconduct.  Thus, the defendants cannot speak as to the incident which precipitated his arrest.”

How ’bout it, crack scribes?  Any suggestions for a better re-write?  Anyone care to disagree with me that serial commas add clarity?

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