→ Ben Callinan
Introduction: the battleground
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma, Harvard comma or series comma) could be described as the Donald Trump of punctuation. It is that controversial and people are that passionate about it, regardless whether they are for or against its use. I want to take on the challenge of unpacking why the serial comma is so controversial and see if it is possible to bring two warring sides together.
I will begin by giving a definition of the serial comma and show how it is used in writing before going over the mark’s somewhat mysterious history. I will then look at the arguments and positions taken by various style guides and their reasons for taking such positions, before exploring if there is a way the serial comma can or cannot be applied consistently. Finally, I will talk about if its use should be mandatory or something to use only out of necessity.
The Maine serial
A recent court case showed clearly how the use of the serial comma could have very serious real-world implications. In the US state of Maine, Judge David J Brown upheld an appeal in a class-action lawsuit over $US10 million worth of overtime pay. The reason: a missing serial comma.
The case involved an interpretation of what activities were considered exempt from overtime pay. The problematic clause in Maine state law read: ‘The canning, processing, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution …’ A serial comma placed after ‘packing for shipment’ would have separated it from ‘distribution’, defining them as two separate activities. It was successfully argued that without the serial comma, only the act of packing for the purposes of shipping or distribution was exempt from overtime pay.
So, what is the serial comma?
The serial comma is an optional comma used after the penultimate item in a series of three or more terms. It is placed before a coordinating conjunction (and, or) (Macquarie Dictionary 2017; Oxford Dictionaries 2017). If I wanted to write about three best friends and I included the serial comma, it would look like this: Anthony, Brett, and Chris.
The serial comma is between the words ‘Brett’ and ‘and’. Without the serial comma, it would look like this: Anthony, Brett and Chris. In this example, whether or not the serial comma is used has no effect on the meaning. Either way it is read as a list of three people: Anthony, Brett and the third Chris. But if there is more information added, we can see how the serial comma can be very useful for clearing up ambiguity: I love my parents, Kanye West and Princess Peach.
Without the serial comma, the sentence could be interpreted as saying that I love my parents, and my parents are Kanye West and Princess Peach. Let’s add in the serial comma: I love my parents, Kanye West, and Princess Peach.
Now it is clear I love parents as well as Kanye West and Princess Peach.
However, the serial comma can also introduce ambiguity in some instances. Say I received a message telling me what I needed to bring to a party and it said: Dan, a clown, and a pony.
Now this can be interpreted as meaning Dan is the clown, so I would only need to bring Dan and a pony, meaning the party might suffer for the lack of amusement. One suggested solution to both cases of ambiguity is to simply rewrite the sentence so the meaning becomes clear. Now the first example becomes: I love Kanye West, Princess Peach, and my parents. And the second: A clown, a pony, and Dan.
Where did it come from?
The history of the serial comma is surprisingly mysterious. It has had a long association with Oxford University, giving rise to the title ‘the Oxford comma’. At Oxford University printers, readers and editors traditionally used the serial comma, although other publishers and writers were also known to have used this style.
Jasso Lamberg, a specialist in communication, design and research, sought to identify its origin. The earliest reference to the rule he was able to locate was from 1905, when it was mentioned in FH Collins’s Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary. In this book Collins’s preference is to use the serial comma as it gives each item on the list equal value. He gives credit for inventing the serial comma to Herbert Spencer, a Victorian philosopher and scientist. Later publications suggest Spencer was a supporter of Collins using the serial comma, rather than its inventor. This left the precise origin of the serial comma unclear.
And who uses it?
Whether or not a style guide suggests using the serial comma usually varies according to geographical location. Typically style guides advocating the use of the serial comma are based in the USA and those against it are in the UK, but there are plenty of exceptions.
Style guides supporting the use of the serial comma include: The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), The Elements of Style (Strunk and White 1999) and The Oxford Guide to Style (Ritter 2002). These favour its use because its use avoids ambiguities and supports uniformed importance of each item that make up a list. By removing the serial comma, a stronger relationship is suggested between the items separated by the coordinating conjunction, which may not be the case (Style Manual 2002, pp. 102–103).
Style guides opposing the use of the serial comma include: The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, The Associated Press Stylebook (2016) and the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (2002). They argue it is unnecessary if the meaning remains clear without its addition, however it can be used when ambiguity is created by it not being used. The main concern here being to ensure clarity (Style Manual 2002, pp. 102–103).
Back in Maine
Returning to the court case in Maine, we can see how these style inconsistencies can play out. In her discussion on the case, Mary Norris points out the defence did concede the statement was ambiguous, but they argued it had ‘latent clarity’. However, the plaintiffs strengthened their case by pointing out ‘distribution’ was not listed as a gerund while the other activities were: canning, processing, freezing etc. Thu-Huong Ha in Quartz stated the Maine style guide for legislation instructs lawmakers to not use the serial comma, but when there is ambiguity to modify what is written in order to achieve clarity.
This gets us to the heart of the debate. On one side are those who say by simply applying a serial comma the ambiguity disappears. According to Mignon Fogarty on her blog Grammar Girl, a decision to always use the serial comma adds consistency. A consistent style is advantageous over making a case-by-case decision on whether to include it. If adding a comma doesn’t clarify the meaning of the sentence, Fogarty says the best option is to re-write the sentence.
On the other side of the debate are those who argue that most the time meaning remains clear without the addition of the serial comma. Arguing that commas have to be applied consistently is too prescriptivist when language is moving away from enforcing punctuation rules too strongly. As Matthew JX Malady argues in Slate, the general move towards written language being more conversational has led to punctuation being dropped or repurposed. The ambiguous use of the oxford comma has led to confusion over how it should be used, resulting in an abundance of inconsistent styles. However, a lot of the time clear communication is still possible without a strong attachment to the serial comma and other punctuation whatsoever.
Conclusion: peace at last?
As the battle over the oxford comma rages, is it possible to come up with a solution that will please both sides of the debate? Will those who believe consistency and clarity is key be confident their writing will be fully understood? And to those who think the comma unnecessary, the context and meaning of the words being all that’s needed, can they be reassured their meaning won’t become ambiguous? When talking about language, grammar rules and punctuation, it is important to remember that the purpose of language is to enable clear communication with each other. With this preference for clarity in mind, the serial comma serves as a wonderful invention for its ability to do exactly that. If we look at the Maine court case, if the serial comma had been added there’d have been no ambiguity over the law and no costly court case. I would not make my friends believe Kanye West and Princess Peach were my parents, or that Dan was a clown. While we may be able to understand the intended meaning of a list without the serial comma, its use can give us the confidence that what we are writing is being understood with clarity.