Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Serial Killer Turns Himself In

An editor sent me a frantic email:
Nobody cares about the comma but us. So it’s up to us to decide.I am editing and I just don’t know what to do. I want the comma, but I don’t want the pieces either of us edit to be inconsistent. For other editors, I can always overrule their comma preference, but I respect your opinion on the sequential comma. So what will it be. Sequential comma or no?
My gut reaction was to say no to the sequential comma. I always took it as a rule that the last comma in a series was superfluous.I checked my Strunk & White. Sure enough, they say to leave out what they call the "serial comma."

Rule #2:
In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
Thus write,
red, white, and blue gold, silver, or copper
He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
This comma is often referred to as the "serial" comma. In the names of business firms the last comma is usually omitted. Follow the usage of the individual firm.
Little, Brown and Company Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette
 Still, after such a plea, I thought perhaps I shouldn't be so hasty. And on closer look at Strunk & White's examples, it sure seems to me that those did use the serial comma.

I googled a bit and I found that most authorities (except for AP and other journalists) say to use the serial comma. I was also surprised to discover that the sequential or serial comma was also known as the "Oxford comma."
The Oxford label gives the serial comma a whole new aura. Kind of like the scarlet cap and gown Mark Twain wore at his daughter's wedding.... the same cap and gown he wore when the Degree of Doctor of Literature was conferred upon him by Oxford University.
I wrote the editor that I am guilty: a serial killer of commas. I turn myself in to the lexicographic authorities.
But, in case I start backsliding, I advised that she keep a box of commas on her desk and pop one in whenever I leave it out.

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