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Serial Commas are the better choice for Creative Writers?

Ross at Play
Updated:

I apologise if this is an issue dealt with here before. I have been suffering a great deal of confusion and angst recently about 'Oxford commas'. In particular the questions, 'What are they? When are they used? Who uses them? Are they better?'

I think I can now answer those questions.

CrumblyWriter found a webpage discussing 8 (in)famous quotes (4 each from both sides) by people claiming the use (or not) of the Oxford comma was creating (or preventing) ambiguities.

After considering those quotes, I have become a committed adherent to benefits of using the Oxford comma.

The first point that needs clarification is the expression does NOT indicate it's the preferred style in Britain. In fact, the reverse is true. The name comes from the fact that Oxford University (or perhaps OU Press) was one of the few institutions in Britain that has insisted for some time it be used.

I am going to start using the other expression for this style, the 'serial comma'.

The serial comma is used widely in the US (but not in newspapers). The non-serail comma is most common in UK (but not at Oxford).

To me, the choice is quite simple. The serial comma allows creative writers more flexibility in the meanings they can convey. It never (based on an analysis of the infamous quotes cited) CREATES ambiguities - provided it is used correctly.

Almost all of the examples quoted, by both sides of the debate, were not actually ambiguities created by the use or not of the serial comma. Mostly were simply sentences in which ONLY commas were used for punctuation, even though they were being used for different purposes.

There are other separators that may be used freely when needed (semi-colons, dashes and parentheses). If the writers of the suspect sentences had used commas for one purpose (a list of items), and anything else for separating clauses, then all potential ambiguities disappear.

My example sentence ...

'She took a photograph of her parents, the President and the Secretary of State.'

I am hoping to see sentences like that quite often over the next 9 years, and I will KNOW if the writer is using serial commas, the photographer could only be Chelsea Clinton!

Writers NOT USING serial commas will have difficulty conveying that meaning. The only easy way I can see they could achieve that is by inserting 'own' before the word 'parents'.

Writers USING serial commas will have two options:

(1) 'She took a photograph of her parents, the President and the Secretary of State.'

(2) 'She took a photograph of her parents, the President, and the Secretary of State.'

There is NO AMBIGUITY with either of these sentences!

Sentence (1) can only mean Chelsea Clinton took a photograph of two people.

Sentence (2) can only mean someone, whoever they may be, took a group photograph of four people.

(I ask the forgiveness of the LGBT and other communities in presuming all people have two parents. I'm trying to make an important point here!)

IMHO, the serial comma should be preferred by creative writers, because it allows greater flexibility of meaning to be conveyed without the need for extra words to prevent ambiguities. It appears to have the benefit of already being used more frequently, by most in the US and Canada, plus minorities elsewhere (that are probably growing).

I note that both forms are correct, and both are used on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a matter of personal choice, and for your readers being consistent and accurate in whatever choice you make is more important than which you choose.

I think I have it right now, finally? If my understanding is not correct, please explain! (Aussies will get THAT one)

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Ernest Bywater

The two biggest uses of commas, in my opinion, are to separate items in a list, and to mark an expansive phrase / statement, usually the start and end of it. E.g.

Fred had his rifle, knife, hatchet, and pack of food. - list

John was going deer hunting with Timothy, his brother-in-law, in the forest around Forestville, Timothy's home town. - expansive phrases / statements.

Many of the examples I've seen where people say the serial comma causes confusion would only cause confusion if you assume the writer has included an expansive statement within a list - in that situation using commas can do nothing but create confusion. Many of the claimed statements aren't such an issue, but some are.

The key is to not use commas for expansive phrases in a list. When I fell the need to use an expansive statement within a list I use a dash, and have sometimes used a semi-colon between the list items. E.g.

Fred had his rifle - the .308 with scope, knife - twelve inch Bowie style skinning knife, hatchet, and pack of food - of mixed dry trail food to nibble on.

If the expansions are long and complex, the a semi-colon is better to split them apart, simply because it stand out more.

Ernest Bywater

I'm deliberately doing this a a separate post for clarity.

The other point to keep in mind is the serial comma also makes it easier to incorporate a collective noun in a list, which I try to save to the end, if there's only one. The nouns I mean are those like bow and arrow, where the word and is used to join two nouns into one noun for a specific usage. Thus you can make sense of lists of collective nouns. E.g. (note, in this case I'm using a colon to designate what follows is a list)

There were four couple in the van with Fred: Mary and John, Harriet and Neville, Anna and Harry, Jenny and Jill.

Of the other ten people in the van with Frank there were only three official couples: Jack, Alice, Peter and Anna, Harry and Helen, Mark and Mary, Jenny, and Tom.

See how the sue of the serial comma makes it clear which are compound nouns and which are list items.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ross at Play

@Ernest Bywater

See how the use of the serial comma makes it clear which are compound nouns and which are list items.

Yes, I do see it. That was my revelation last night!
All of the allegations that serial commas can create ambiguities are rubbish. The perceived problems were created by writers not recognising they were using commas to separate different things - lists, expansion phrases and collective nouns. No single mark can cope with all that heavy lifting, but the solution is simply examining the sentence to decide which commas should be replaced with something else.
I cannot do so now, but I'll post the eight 'controversial' sentences with my suggestions for how correct use of serial commas and alternatives to them ensures their meanings are never ambiguous.

Crumbly Writer
Updated:

Ross, I think you're missing the point. The argument isn't to use the serial comma at all, it's whether to use it as a matter of course. Your choice to use it optionally is argument against the pro-serial comma argument (who argue it should be used in most instances). Those who don't like using it are the ones suggesting it only be applied when you encounter confusing situations.

The discussion is more: use the serial comma all the time, or only when it's absolutely needed.

Personally, I go for the second as it affords authors (who don't adhere to any specific style guide) the most creative freedom.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

The only articles I've seen have all argued against using the serial comma in any situation.

I'll concentrate on using the serial comma in lists, first. In writing, one of the major things you have to do to make things easier for the reader is to be consistent in how you write. Now, I don't mean everything you write has to be written the same way, although that does help, what I mean is what you write in a story must be done the same way.

In short, you need to decide, at the start, to use it or not to use it for the whole story. If you decide not to you use it, you will find yourself have to reword some sentences to avoid the confusion you might otherwise create.

Up to this point I've been concentrating on the use of the serial comma in lists. However, there are other situation where some people say you should use a comma, and declare it to be a serial comma. This is where it can be safely argued the use may be optional.

Those heavily in favor of always using a serial comma say it must be used before such words like and, because, or, as, but, when, where, and a few others I can't remember off hand and also after certain words like however. However, it's been my experience such usage will often lead to clarity, it doesn't always lead to clarity, and sometimes you can be just as clear without the serial comma. In others the use of a comma can lead to ambiguity.

I'll end with the most famous demonstration of the importance of punctuation.

Help, police, murder.

Help, police murder.

typo edit.

Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play


The serial comma is used widely in the US (but not in newspapers).


Not in newspapers because their goal is to save as much print space as possible. An extra comma uses one more print space. That's why:

AP Style Guide: xxx...xxx
Chicago Style: xxx . . . xxx

AP: no serial comma
CMS: use serial comma

AP: 15-year-old
CMS: fifteen-year-old

As you can see, each of the newspaper styles is shorter.

I always use the serial comma unless it causes confusion, like not putting it between "ham and eggs" in a sentence like: "For breakfast, I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs."

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

The only articles I've seen have all argued against using the serial comma in any situation.

I'll concentrate on using the serial comma in lists, first. In writing, one of the major things you have to do to make things easier for the reader is to be consistent in how you write. Now, I don't mean everything you write has to be written the same way, although that does help, what I mean is what you write in a story must be done the same way.

I normally support your consistency theorum (that readers prefer consistency in style), but in this one instance, I disagree. The idea is that you avoid the serial comma as a consistent style, and only use it when it's specifically needed to understand a particular passage. By taking this approach, readers will recognize when you use it, and will slow down and take slightly longer to parse the meaning of the sentence, thus grasping the full implications, rather than simply speed reading it and guessing at what you're trying to say.

Thus, in the case of "She took a shot of her parents, the president, and the cabinet," they'll spend more time figuring out what you're actually saying.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Crumbly Writer

@Switch Blayde

I always use the serial comma unless it causes confusion, like not putting it between "ham and eggs" in a sentence like: "For breakfast, I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs."

Case in point (against your "one grammar rule to bind them all!" philosophy): Switch uses the serial comma as a matter of course, except when it doesn't make sense, while I avoid it, except when it's required to make sense of the sentence. I'd argue that in Switch's case, it looks more like he accidentally left it out, whereas in my approach, the whole point is to slow the reader down (since I'm not following my own style), to get the reader to pay more attention to the passage (and why I added the serial comma whereas I don't normally).

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

I disagree.


In this case, I think we need to agree to disagree, because if the comma isn't there I, like many people, assume it's a combined noun showing a linked pair, the way bow and arrow is - thus I'd see the photo example of her saying her saying she took a photo her two parents while they were in those roles if there was no comma. The lack of the comma is more jarring to me than when it's where I expect it to be and I have to stop and work out if they really meant it that way.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

In this case, I think we need to agree to disagree, because if the comma isn't there I, like many people, assume it's a combined noun showing a linked pair, the way bow and arrow is - thus I'd see the photo example of her saying her saying she took a photo her two parents while they were in those roles if there was no comma. The lack of the comma is more jarring to me than when it's where I expect it to be and I have to stop and work out if they really meant it that way.

In both cases (Switch's and mine), the assumption is that readers will recognize when an author breaks their own style and not just assume they dropped (or added) a comma by accident--an argument that's hard to justify using actual data. In most cases, readers only skim most sentences and make hurried assumptions as to their meaning. That's why so many typos live on, despite repeated editing passes.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Switch Blayde

I happen to like seeing the serial comma, which is why I used it before ever hearing about the Chicago Manual of Style or Grammar Girl, but both say it should be used. Here's Grammar Girl's take on it:

http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/serial-comma

and why she believes it should be used:

Although the serial comma isn't always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read. Really, unless space is incredibly expensive, I can't imagine why anyone would decide the best method is sometimes leave it out and sometimes add it in.*

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

the assumption is that readers will recognize when an author breaks their own style and not just assume they dropped (or added) a comma by accident


Not a safe assumption to make, CW. I know many people who've got lost reading a story where the author has used the academia quotation method for a long dialogue and assumed the reader would recognise it's the same speaker in the next paragraph without saying so, simply because they left off the closing apostrophe mark. The result is most people don't immediately notice the missing apostrophe and assume it's a new speaker because its' a new paragraph and that's the standard rule. It's only when they get confused, dumped form the story, and re-read a few times to try and work out just what is happening do they get what the author was doing, then they swear, and many dump the story at that point because it's too much trouble to understand it, and thus not a relaxing read for them. I've seen this happen so often, is why i work damned hard for clarity and consistency within the story, and obvious presentation / display.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

Not a safe assumption to make, CW. I know many people who've got lost reading a story where the author has used the academia quotation method for a long dialogue and assumed the reader would recognise it's the same speaker in the next paragraph without saying so, simply because they left off the closing apostrophe mark.

Sigh! We've been over continued quotes before, to no resolution of clarity, however, insisting that authors should limit how long a central character speaks is akin to insisting they should only speak in simple sentences. Authors convey stories, and insisting they 'dumb down' those stories so stupid readers can understand them is an insult to every reader (even the slower ones).

I prefer writer denser dialogue, where one character might expound on a point for several paragraphs. Either my readers recognize that or they don't, but I refuse to break their speech up into a series of clever quips or intersperse their every comment with "Tom scratched his balls before continuing."

If readers can't read more than a couple lines at a time, then they've got no business reading my stories in the first place. There are plenty of authors writing easy to read or large print books, as well as plenty of children's authors. There's no sense dictating that everyone write the same because someone may eventually get confused.

By the way, Ernest, I just acknowledged that it's a untested and unreliable hypothesis (that readers notice style differences), so it's a little silly to chide me for it. My only point is that I'd rather call attention to difficult passages, rather than to always use one particular styles whether it fits the circumstances or not.

In most of my style choices, I'll go with a single style across books or within a given story, but in this case, I'd prefer using whatever is easiest to understand. It may not always work, but again, readers rarely care how the President's children eat their mashed potatoes! ::(

Dominions Son

@Crumbly Writer

I prefer writer denser dialogue, where one character might expound on a point for several paragraphs. Either my readers recognize that or they don't, but I refuse to break their speech up into a series of clever quips or intersperse their every comment with "Tom scratched his balls before continuing."


Or worse, pack the whole monologue into one paragraph.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Dominions Son

Or worse, pack the whole monologue into one paragraph.

Right. You break paragraphs according to very specific guidelines (change in topic, speakers, addressee, etc.)
In this case, Ernest will often craft non-dialogue paragraph breaks, in the middle of dialogue, the same way he'll rewrite entire passages just to make an ebook break on this printed page at the right place. My point is, it's a lot of work for little payoff. If readers don't understand a given passage, then they SHOULD reread it!!!

I'd rather readers understand my stories than they feel so comfortable they never feel they need to vary their pace. Just as we adjust the pace of our writing, readers often need to adjust the pace of their reading (most often to pee!).

Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

however, insisting that authors should limit how long a central character speaks is akin to insisting they should only speak in simple sentences


Never said that. In the past, when we discussed this, I've said you should either have a single paragraph or re-tag in a way to immediately show it's the same speaker, which is what I do where I have a major monologue - which I have a few of, too. In this situation I was mentioning the dropped apostrophe to show how it's not wise to assume the reader is going to pick up on something small that is different to what was being done for the rest of the story up to there. nor was I having a go at your style.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

nor was I having a go at your style.

I never thought you were, but again, we're arguing over minor differences in perspective. We both agree on consistency. I just prefer to highlight difficult to parse segments--for whatever reason--while you seem to prefer ignoring them (by sticking to the same guidelines regardless of circumstances--though I realize that's a false accusation).

My other point was another difference in our approaches, where you'll often focus on minor formatting issues, rewriting story segments to avoid minor issues, while I prefer letting the readers read it for themselves. (I know, I know, adding or removing commas to change the meaning of sentences is pretty minor, but I find rewriting paragraph changes because you don't think readers will notice a paragraph break to be overkill.)

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

I find rewriting paragraph changes because you don't think readers will notice a paragraph break to be overkill.


CW, if you have it in mind when you first write the monologue you don't need to re-write it because it's done that way the first time through.

I agree, in general, if they don't understand it they should re-read it, but they should not have to re-read it because you did a difference in punctuation from what you've lead them to expect leading to confusion for a reader.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


CW, if you have it in mind when you first write the monologue you don't need to re-write it because it's done that way the first time through.


That's not my objection. I don't mind making necessary changes. However, I'm not convinced you need to write to the least common denominator. If there's a problem, where editors or readers mention they got lost I'd rewrite it, but I don't like anticipating imaginary problems. Breaking up every single paragraph in a running monologue just seems excessive. I might break up a few, but that's a lot of unnecessary description.

In my example, I doubt anyone will search for why there's a comma missing. My hope is that noting the missing comma will wave an red flag, even if they aren't consciously aware of it. I just hope it'll cause them to slow down, momentarily, to notice the working. If not, it won't make a major difference one way or the other (like in your mash potatoes example).

That said, if the sentence fragment is central to the plot, then yes, I'd keep reworking it until it's easier to understand. My issue isn't with reworking a passage, it's about obsessing about insignificant details. In general, commas might confuse, but they rarely cause readers to lose the story.

Update: I guess my issue is: when you state that you won't write more than a single paragraph by any character, it makes me think you're either underestimating your readers--assuming they're incapable of reading a book--or you're obsessing about minor issues.

I'm not saying you should blindly ignore confusing transitions, but rewriting normal dialogue because you don't think readers can deal with it just seems like you're going overboard. If nothing else, do that with the first paragraph break, but then just let your damn characters speak for themselves!

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

Personally, I go for the second as it affords authors (who don't adhere to any specific style guide) the most creative freedom.

Perhaps I could have begun by stating my OBJECTIVE is finding punctuation style(s) that 'afford authors...the most creative freedom.'
I've only been able to find guides that are intended for university students, etc. For the Oxford comma (before the conjunction proceeding the last of three or more elements), some mandate 'MUST', and others mandate 'MUST NOT'. BOTH ARE WRONG for creative writers, and cause their writing to become stiled and verbose.
I am convinced creative writers should begin with a choice. How do they punctuate a run-of-the-mill sentence with three clauses and a conjunction?
For example, 'I was walking the dog to the shops, a man asked me where he could find a bakery, and I told him it was inside the mall.'
Writers who use a comma after 'bakery' use the serial comma style, but if not they use the non-serial comma style.
Either choice is valid, but having made a choice, they should then use it consistently for all ordinary sentences, but unlike technical writing, they have complete (?) freedom to do otherwise to create different effects in non-ordinary sentences.
I see showing discipline in always doing something with the ordinary as essential to readers detecting when have chosen to do something else, and then interpreting their meaning as they intended - it's the adherence to (your choice of) guidelines that ALLOWS 'the most creative freedom'!
My choice between the two basic styles is using the serial comma. If Oxford commas are usually present, omitting one creates a link between the last two elements, and can change the meaning of sentences entirely. If they are usually absent, the inclusion seems only capable of gaining the readers' attention prior for an element the writer wants to stress.
The non-serial style also seems much more to create ambiguities writers might overlook. Their sentences often end in the form, 'A, B and C.' Whenever 'B and C' could be a description of the noun A, as well as the last two elements of a list - there WILL be an ambiguity (that the writer should resolve by adding a comma after 'B'). That seems like something that is very easy to overlook. If using a serial comma, the choice is whether to omit the final comma to create a desired effect - something writers would be thinking of as they write.
On the grounds of less potential for ambiguity and the greatest freedom for creativity, my choice is to use the serial comma style (not, I did not say 'rule'), and I'd strongly recommend other creative writers do so too.
To CW, I appreciate you rushing to stress (and I'm paraphrasing here), no guidelines can substitute for writers exercising care in deciding what form is best to convey their intended meaning to readers.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer

I think you're missing the point. The argument isn't to use the serial comma at all, it's whether to use it as a matter of course.

Personally, I go for the second as it affords authors (who don't adhere to any specific style guide) the most creative freedom.


I did not 'miss the point', and DID NOT suggest anything be used as 'a matter of course'.
Perhaps I could have begun by stating my OBJECTIVE is finding punctuation style(s) that 'afford authors...the most creative freedom.'

CW mentioned his choice is to only use the final comma when needed for some purpose. I'm sure that as a very experienced writer, using his style correctly and consistently, his writing is now as clear and enjoyable as it would have been if he'd adopted the other style as a new writer. I guess my real question is which choice by new writers would make it easier for them to achieve that standard.

BTW, I had intended to end my thread heading with a question mark, but I can't edit that now. I'll ask if Lazeez can correct that for me. I'd did not intend to imply I was confident my choice was suitable for others.

I've only been able to find guides that are intended for university students, etc. Regarding the use of serial commas (before the conjunction proceeding the last of three or more elements), some mandate 'MUST', and others mandate 'MUST NOT'. BOTH ARE WRONG for creative writers, and would cause their writing to become stilted and verbose.

I am convinced creative writers should begin with a choice. How do they punctuate a run-of-the-mill sentences with three clauses and a conjunction?

For example, 'I was walking the dog to the shops, a man asked me where to a bakery, and I told him one was inside the mall.'

Writers who place a comma after 'bakery' are using the serial comma style, but with no comma they are using the non-serial comma style.

Either choice is valid, but having made a choice, I am convinced they SHOULD then use it consistently for all ordinary sentences. Unlike technical writing, they DO HAVE complete (?) freedom to do otherwise to create different effects in non-ordinary sentences.

I see showing discipline in always doing something with the ordinary as essential if readers are to detect when something else is done, allowing them to interpret meanings as writers intended. It's the adherence to (your choice of) guidelines that ALLOWS 'the most creative freedom'!

My choice between the two basic styles is to use the serial comma. If Oxford commas are usually present, omitting one creates a link between the last two elements. That can be used to change the meanings of sentences entirely. The non-serial style appears (to me) to only allow for readers' attention to be gained (by the inclusion of an unnecessary comma) prior to an element the writer wants to stress.

The non-serial style also seems much more to create ambiguities writers might overlook. Their sentences often end in the form, 'A, B and C.' Whenever 'B and C' could be a description of the noun A, AND two more elements of a list, there WILL be an ambiguity. Writers should resolve these by adding a comma after 'B' when it is a list. That seems like something that is very easy to overlook. If using a serial comma, the choice is whether to omit the final comma to create some desired effect - something they'd presumeably be thinking of as they write.

On the grounds of less potential for ambiguity and the greatest freedom for creativity, my choice is to use the serial comma style (note, I did not say 'rule').

I am hesitant about recommending the same choice by other NEW creative writers. That is my point in starting this thread. I am confident this choice is best for me, at my current level of development. I think it would be the better choice for others in a similar situation, but I am open to arguments that may not be so.

I currently feel inclined (as an editor) to urge my new authors to use the serial comma style. I would be particularly interested in examples from experienced authors where they consider the non-serial style has some advantages (as opposed to being an entirely valid alternative). I may change my opinion if anyone can show me examples of that, but I have yet to see anything claiming that which is not merely a result of the claimant's lack of knowledge about how serial commas should properly be used.

To CW, I appreciate you rushing to stress (and I'm paraphrasing here), no guidelines can substitute for writers exercising care in deciding what form is best to convey their intended meaning to readers. It is sound advice to others, but I'd already got beyond that, and asking more about specifics that do allow authors the most creative freedom.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


I guess my issue is: when you state that you won't write more than a single paragraph by any character


CW, That is not what I'm saying, and not what I've said in the past. What I am saying is I will not rely on a reader noticing the missing apostrophe was deliberate and not a mistake when I split a lengthy monologue into multiple paragraphs (I won't go into detail why a quotation rule shouldn't be applied to dialogue). The standard is new paragraph new speaker so that's what the readers expect to have happen. Thus, when I have a new paragraph with the same reader as before, I open it up with a couple of words to make it clear it is the same speaker as in the paragraph before. There are many cases where I have real long monologues by my characters, and I use the above process to clarify who is speaking. Just a simple He continued with .. to open the new paragraph does the job. - The point is to be very clear who is speaking because you are stepping away from what is the norm in dialogue presentation. In the recent work in progress I sent you on Zombies I have a monologue early in it where the speaker says over 600 words, and I've split it into 4 paragraphs. In that situation it's normal for the speaker to be doing other actions while they talk, so I used those actions as the transition points and opening the new paragraphs in a way to make it clear it's the same speaker.

...........

As to the serial comma, if you use it for part of the story and not in other parts of the story you're likely to confuse the reader as to what's happening when you don't use it, unless it's done in a way that makes what you want to say very clear. Whatever you do in the early part of a story sets up expectations in a reader's mind about how you will use punctuation etc. throughout the story and changing that mid-stride will only confuse them and lower the pleasure they get from the story due to having to take time out of the story to work out what you mean.

typo edit

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


The only articles I've seen have all argued against using the serial comma in any situation.

I'll concentrate on using the serial comma in lists


That sounds sensible to me. The examples I have seen where serial commas are 'better' were all cases of commas being used in lists as well as a separator for other types of things.

I can see how readers could become accustomed to interpreting commas as indicating another element of a list is coming, once it's clear a list has been started.

I'll see what others say, but at this stage I like that for my style of when to use the serial comma (excluding times I have something special to show by omitting it).

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Ross at Play

interpreting commas as indicating another element of a list is coming


The other thing to keep in mind with lists is: a list can be a list of things (e.g. Mike had a car, a speed boat, a motorcycle, and a light plane.), or they can be a list of actions - which is one area many writers get confused with (e.g. Ralph entered the building through the front door, raced down the main hallway, turned left at the first intersection, ran down the hall, stopped at the main lab, got out his key, opened the door, ran across the room, and hit the emergency decontamination button.)

Too often I've seen authors do a list of action like above and use 'and' in place of the commas in the example - that just makes it hard to read.

Another good aspect about the difference between using the serial comma and not using is, once you establish in the reader's mind you use it, it allows you to indicate the difference between consecutive activities as against serial activities. E.g. Fred fell backward and kicked John - as against - Fred fell backward, and kicked John. Once the readers are sued to you using the serial comma they know in the first case Fred kicked John while he was falling backwards, while in the second it's clear Fred kicked John after he fell backward.

(note: In the above I'd be more likely to write the simultaneous action as: Fred kicked John while falling backwards. But that's different to the discussion here.)

Ross at Play

@Ernest Bywater

a list can be a list of things ... or a list of actions
the difference between using the serial comma and not using

I was planning to asks 'what are lists?' once I had internet access. At this stage I'm going with a working definition of a list as any set of alternatives or examples, or forming a logical sequence. The other part of my definition is check something is not a digression. I may need to email you occasional 'what is this?' questions.

I do understand the difference when serial commas are not used, that option is the reason I will adopt that style.

Ross at Play

@Crumbly Writer

I thank you for your contributions to this question, but I'm going to go with serial comma style, but only for lists.
I can see how experienced writers using either style have no difficulty conveying their meanings precisely, and without being forced into using added clutter.
To me, the differences of opinion between you and the other camp about which style is 'better' come down to the frequencies of readers not noticing something is different.
For inexperienced writers, minimising their own errors seems MUCH MORE important. My assessment is that will be easier when using serial commas for lists.
I have chosen my preference on this issue, and I'm moving onto other things, like rules of grammar!? NOT, I hasten to add, because I intend to slavishly follow them ... I want to know them so that I'll understand what I'm really doing WHEN I choose to break them.
BTW, I looked at the website CW noted yesterday, and I dismissed as rubbish. It was very helpful, and these are the comments I wrote about it last night ...

The webpage at http://mentalfloss.com/article/33637/best-shots-fired-oxford-comma-wars
lists 9 sentences used by advocates, for or against, the use of serial commas. I will address first five examples, and show that if the serial comma is used correctly, it does cope with all of the perceived objections that were made.

I discarded the remaining examples as the objections were all essentially just repeats of (1) and (4) below.

(1) "She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice president [sic]."

The claim was this sentence may be ambiguous - either the person could be taking a photograph of four people, or the parents of the photographer are the president, and the vice-president.

Using serial commas, the first meaning (four people) is shown by inserting a comma before the 'and', giving:
'She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice-president.'

The second meaning is shown as above.

(2) "Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones."

The claim was this sentence may be ambiguous - either there are five people at the ceremony, or only four people because the donor of the cup is Mr. Smith.

Using serial commas, the first meaning (five people) is shown as above.

For the other meaning, the punctuation mark before 'Mr. Smith' cannot be the same as the three other marks separating the four elements of the list.

(a) One option is enclosing Mr. Smith in parentheses, giving:
'Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup (Mr. Smith), and Mr. Jones.'

(b) A second is to separate elements of the list with semi-colons, which requires a colon to introduce the list, giving:
'Those at the ceremony were: the commodore; the fleet captain; the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith; and Mr. Jones.'

(c) I'm not certain I understand the grammar for this, but I think 'Mr. Smith' is a 'restrictive appositive', a noun that identifies the preceding noun, and they are shown with NO punctuation mark. If that is so, the best option is simply:
'Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.' (my emphasis)

(3) "Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists, men and women."

The claim was this sentence may be ambiguous - either there were six groups of people shot, or there were four groups of people shot with both men and women included in those groups.

Using serial commas, the first meaning (six groups) is shown by inserting a comma before the 'and', giving:
'Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists, men, and women.'

The other meaning requires the comma after 'journalists' to be changed, because otherwise what follows must be yet another element of the list. That comma should be replaced with a second dash (parentheses replacing both dashes). Once that is done, the list of four elements becomes an enclosed 'parenthetical pause', a digression within a sentence, giving:
'Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists—men and women.'

(4) "There are certain places where for the sake of clarity and good form the presence of a comma is obligatory, but on the other hand a too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader."

This appeared in a 1937 New York Times style guide, recommending economy in the use of commas. Perhaps the writer was exercising economy in the use of breaths as well. I expect the asphyxia suffered after writing a fifty-six word sentence, with only one comma and no pause for a fresh breath, created the obvious confusion and hesitancy in their mind.

(5) "...use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense [sic] ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost."

This was how Wilson Follett, in his 1966 Modern American Usage, advocated for the comma on the grounds that it can't really hurt, by using commas to enclose the phrase 'including the last two'.
I do not see any cost for readers caused by correctly placed commas, but a definite risk of harm to readers (confusion or extra effort) if they are not used when required.
I find it impossible to say that sentence aloud without a distinct pause at the places of both commas. The ONLY function of punctuation is to allow sentences to be read in the same way as the writer would say them. On those common sense grounds alone, the use of two commas to enclose that phrase should be considered mandatory.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Ernest Bywater


Those heavily in favor of always using a serial comma say it must be used before such words like and, because, or, as, but, when, where, and a few others I can't remember off hand


I think I saw the list you can't totally remember in grammar.com.

It suggested the mnemonic to remember the 'coordinating conjunctions' is BOYFANS.

The list is 'and' PLUS seven with 2 or 3 letter words: but, or, yet, for, as, nor, so.

There is some good reason for knowing this list, but I haven't figured that out yet.

Regarding the rules some advocate for words in this list, I am going to apply my rule: Always ignore rules containing the word 'always'.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@Ross at Play


There is some good reason for knowing this list, but I haven't figured that out yet.


If that's the list I remember it's good for most usages, but not all. The reason being the comma is used to separate two different phrases / thoughts that are closely linked in the usage, as in the first sentence and this sentence. However there are many situation where the story flow is smoother without the comma, but not that many. This is one of those things that comes only with time and practice.

typo edit

Crumbly Writer

@Ross at Play

For example, 'I was walking the dog to the shops, a man asked me where he could find a bakery, and I told him it was inside the mall.'

Personally, I find the combination of statements confusing. I'd either use:

'I walked (no real need for "was") the dog to the shops[, when] a man asked me where to find a bakery. I told him it was inside the mall.'

or

'I walked the dog to the shops. A man asked me where to find a bakery [and] I told him it was inside the mall.'


As for the serial comma, I'm not married to the non-serial comma, but I've always found it easier to read, though I really couldn't say why. However, lately I've been switching back and forth. Before, I tried a consistent approach, but for my last two books, I've been making a decision based on context. I still generally use the non-serial comma, but I'll add a serial comma if I think it clarifies the sentence. However I don't really see how the serial comma is any clearer than the non-serial comma. Essentially, it all boils down to your assumptions, rather than any clarity of message.

Dominions Son

@Ernest Bywater

it allows you to indicate the difference between consecutive activities as against serial activities.


There is no difference between consecutive actions and serial actions.

Did you mean concurrent rather than consecutive?

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Switch Blayde

@Ross at Play

I've only been able to find guides that are intended for university students


The MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/).

The Chicago Manual of Style is the most commonly used by publishers (which is why I follow it).

The AP Style Guide is the most commonly used by journalists (newspapers, magazines, etc.).

And then there's Strunk and White which many people say is the bible for grammar.

Of course many universities, like Oxford and New York University, have their own (but I'd bet they're based on MLA).

I'm sure the NY Times has it's own, but I bet it's based on the AP.

Does each publisher have their own? Don't know, but if they do I'm sure they're based on CMS.

The point is to be consistent.

Replies:   Ross at Play
Ernest Bywater

@Dominions Son

Did you mean concurrent rather than consecutive?


probably, too tired to think then, and now.

Ross at Play
Updated:

@Switch Blayde


The point is to be consistent.


Yes, I am determined to be consistent, but I want to be consistent within the bounds of a range of options that journalists and students are prohibited from using.

To me, full creative freedom can only be achieved by remaining disciplined with your personal choices, BUT choosing options that allow the greatest flexibility for anything that is not merely cosmetic.

The 'Chicago Manual of Style' appears to be exactly the name I have been searching for.

Thanks.

Crumbly Writer

The 'Chicago Manual of Style', or CMOS for short.

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