Friday, April 18, 2014

Grammar Nerds: Serial Commas


If you don't care much about grammar specifics, here's your warning that this series of posts won't interest you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift.
Today's focus: serial commas.
Disclaimer: serial commas aren't right or wrong by modern grammatical standards. In the literary community, they're a source of controversy. While some of my grammar nerd posts will call out common mistakes, the serial comma is a matter of opinion.
First, let's make sure we're on the same page. A serial comma is a comma placed right before a coordinating conjunction (and, or) in a list (meaning at least three items). Example: I love books, dogs, and tea. That comma before "and tea" is the serial comma. Some people would write the same sentence as: I love books, dogs and tea - no comma. The argument for the latter method is that the coordinating conjunction (and) and the serial comma serve the same purpose of separating the listed items and, therefore, the coordinating conjunction alone would suffice.
I'm a serial comma supporter. In general, this lines up with my more traditional stance on commas: I always opt for the comma. Commas tell you how the sentence flows, where to pause. I say traditional, because it seems to me that modern literature is moving away from the comma. While many style guides still call for a serial comma, I see more and more books or publishers omitting commas that I don't even think are "optional" with the argument that all these punctuation marks clutter the writing.

Of course, another big reason for those commas is avoiding ambiguity. A carefully placed comma clarifies a sentence that could otherwise be read in numerous ways. Consider the sentence: I miss my cats, Daisy and Jess. Without the serial comma, the sentence currently implies that Daisy and Jess are the cats. Add a serial comma - I miss my cats, Daisy, and Jess - and it becomes a clear list.
As for you other grammar nerds out there, do you have a stance? To serial comma or not to serial comma?

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