Serial Commas

I begin this first post with a topic that has caused great hair loss throughout my days: The serial comma. I feel very passionately about the usage of this little bit of punctuation, which is also known as the Oxford comma.

Allow me to explain.

Actually, let’s first go over a little history.

Throughout my journalism courses at Oxford — I really didn’t go to Oxford, but I sound much more credible and illustrious if I lie and say I did — I learned a thing or two about the way people used to typeset newspapers. Does anyone know what a newspaper is? They were read top to bottom and left to write and distributed en masse on Sundays. Each letter and punctuation mark printed in a newspaper took up space and ink, and extra space and ink meant extra dollars to afford the space and ink.

So the men who worked these giant typesets were told by men with giant wallets to, and I quote, “Gentlemen, if you continue to print each dash and doodle with such folly, your weekly shekels will be reduced to tittle!”

So, out went the serial comma, and over rolled the great grammarians in their graves.

Now a days you’ll commonly read sentences like, “She wore a dress made of flounder, sticks, nuggets and lard,” in newspapers, magazines, on billboards, and in advertisements all over the place while the majority of the population doesn’t even flinch at the missing serial comma.

But anyone who knows anything understands that “nuggets and lard” aren’t words that typically go together, they don’t act as an object together, and they must be separated by a comma.

However, now that we live in the age of digital revolution and space technology and have no need for clunky, manual typesetting machines run by men covered in soot, we can go on using proper grammar once more.

At least the serial comma has a valid excuse as to why we so hastily neglect it.

Lesson time.

When you are listing items, think about how the serial comma can save your readers from unnecessary confusion. When words are fused together, you may omit it.

Here is an example of what I mean:

She ate capers, pinto beans, paper scraps, and cookies and milk.

See that? Cookies and milk is a familiar phrase that goes together.

Here’s another example:

She ate car parts, and a ham and cheese sandwich.

Got it? Ham and cheese go together because they are considered one object comprising one sandwich.

Now, if she ate the following items, this is how you would list it:

She ate peanuts, havarti, and hair.

Ugh. Who IS this girl?

Let’s try a few more examples.

Tina Turner finally got rid of that husband who smoked, drank, and beat her up.

Burnie Madoff likes to eat prime cutlets, drape his wife in extravagant furs, and buy pent houses with other people’s cash.

Monica Lewinsky likes to wear blue dresses, intern at the White House, and giggle on 20/20 about how she showed her thong to Bill Clinton.

Mike Tyson likes to fight, grill, and bite ears.

Now, see that? Right there!

If I were to say, Mike Tyson likes to fight, grill and bite ears, that reads as Mikey liking to fight, then grill and bite the ears he just had on the grill.

Serial commas can stop ears from getting grilled, but they can’t stop them from getting bit.

Use the serial comma with pride. It’s the digital age, kids.

All for now,

LL

P.S.- If you still would like more information on the history and usage of the serial comma. Check this out.

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