Thursday, July 23, 2009

Poor Little Serial Comma

Has the serial comma died? Am I the only one using this anymore?

First off, don’t be ashamed to need a refresher on what it is. It’s the comma used before the final item in a list of three or more items. Example using the serial comma: “The best football teams to follow are Hibernian FC, Newcastle, and Crystal Palace.” Example without the serial comma: “The best football teams to follow are Hibernian FC, Newcastle and Crystal Palace.”

Usage differs across British and American English, but for me it’s always been delineated by AP Style and Chicago Manual of Style. I always felt, as a result of my technical writing days, that AP Style is used for newspapers and other journalistic pursuits, while Chicago was used for publishing and essays. Personally, I use the serial comma because I feel that it eliminates potential confusion. Using the serial comma in the example above, it’s clear that there are three separate teams that are best to follow. However, in the example without the serial comma, I feel that nuance could be inferred. It almost appears as if Newcastle and Crystal Palace are lumped together as one, as in, there is Hibernian FC to follow, and then there’s Newcastle and Crystal Palace, both of which hold equal places in my heart. (They don’t; I actually don’t follow Crystal Palace although I do love their name, and I confess I’m not following Newcastle, but since the Toons goon doon – they were relegated last season—I do wish them well and very much hope they get promoted back into first division this season. I digress.) For purposes of this example, the lack of serial comma actually infers that neither Newcastle nor Palace are not as good to follow as Hibernian, which is, in fact, entirely and irrevocably true.

See how it is? I am in favor of a) following Chicago when writing novels, and b) maintaining sensitivity to the delicate inflections of the serial comma. What I don’t understand, then, is why I’m seeing the serial comma used in manuscripts. I asked members in my writing group if they had dropped it intentionally, and they admitted that yes, they generally followed AP Style. Of course that’s their choice, and I understand how naturally it comes to someone to use it, or not, based on their style comfort and history. However, I was under the impression that serial commas and Chicago style were to be used in publishing and manuscript preparation.

It could be that it is, but that people are starting to drop it again and the lack of serial comma usage is just a sign of current behavior. I don’t like this, but then I am a stickler for rules—no! Not so I can be pedantic! I like them because then that’s one less thing I have to think about, and goodness knows my head is whirling already with football, writing, mothering, and my affliction of having a laptop plugged into me at all times (notice the serial comma, nyah-nyah-nyah).

2 comments:

CKHB said...

You're not alone! I am a serial comma loyalist.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Awesome, CKHB. Thanks for the support!! Chick lit girls have to stick together.

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