Goodbye, Newspapers; Good Riddance, Serial-Comma Killers

The mighty comma will rise again.Though for me there is little schadenfreude in witnessing the decline and fall of newspapers, I do find one small cause for cheer in this otherwise unsettling spectacle: the potential resurgence of the serial comma.

The serial comma is that final one in a series of three or more items, as in the phrase “red, white, and blue.” (It is sometimes known by its detractors as the “Oxford” or “Harvard” comma, as if to imply that a preference for clarity is somehow elitist or purely academic.)

Most newspapers and their style guides have steadfastly resisted the serial comma. They prefer instead “red, white and blue.”

It’s often suggested that this resistance arose from a desire for typesetting efficiency, as New York Times editor Philip B. Corbett has said:

“I suspect that journalists’ aversion to the additional comma arose in the old days when setting type was laborious and expensive. If you already have an “and,” why bother with a comma, too? The practice persists, from habit and perhaps from the sense that fewer commas make prose seem more direct and rapid—qualities we journalists prize in our writing.”

As Corbett indicates, the argument against the serial comma boils down to this: You don’t need it, and it sounds fussy and ponderous.

Although I find that the serial comma sounds more natural, I can buy the argument that it often isn’t necessary for clarity. But even opponents of serialism recognize that, at times, the additional comma is essential.

And therein lies the problem. Many writers will fail to recognize those times, and clarity will suffer. Although the use of a serial comma can lead to ambiguity too, as Wikipedia evenhandedly points out,  I’ve found that ambiguities are more likely in its absence. So for me, consistent use of serial commas is the wiser policy. (For a longer and more convincing version of this argument, may I suggest the Grammar Girl?)

Opposition to the serial comma will not die out any time soon. Many newspaper writers and editor will hold on to their old habits, even as they exchange new media and venues for old. But the decline of newspapers as an institutional influence on writing gives me hope that the serial comma will make slow but steady gains in the new-media world.