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The Serial Comma / 12 октября 2007 г.

by Parker Barss Donham
May 6, 1998

In my Sunday column, I wrote: “The government would have immediately called a real vote of confidence, won it, and retained power.” Readers of the Sunday Daily News read, “The government would have immediately called a real vote of confidence, won it and retained power.”

The microscopic difference, inserted by me and deleted by an editor, is the serial comma, a punctuation mark with power to excite conflict far out of proportion to its size.

The comma is the most versatile mark in English, also the most difficult to apply consistently in the service of clarity. Its outsized capacity to alter meaning is illustrated in this pair of sentences by New York University professor Maxwell Nurnberg:

Do not break your bread or roll in your soup.
Do not break your bread, or roll in your soup.

The comma’s legions of detractors and admirers battle eternally. A magazine writer once complained to Robert Fulford, then editor of Saturday Night magazine, that the edited version of his article looked as thought Fulford had pinned it to the office wall and fired a fistful of commas at it.

On learning the subject of today’s column, an editor whose long suit is not punctuation declared that “creative people” can’t be bothered with such minutia. Oh yeah? Listen to Oscar Wilde: “All morning long I worked on the proof of one of my poems, and I took out a comma; in the afternoon I put it back.”

The comma’s staunchest defender through much of this century was the New Yorker magazine, where James Thurber reported an “unending fuss and fret about commas” during the reign of founding editor Harold Ross.

A British professor of English once wrote Thurber a long, itemized letter complaining about the New Yorkers fondness for commas. He singled out one sentence of Thurber’s — “After dinner, the men went into the living room” — and demanded to know why Thurber, or the editors, had inserted the comma.

“I could explain that one all right,” Thurber wrote in The Years With Ross. “I wrote back that this particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

The comma’s most controversial cameo is the one that, depending on a writer’s inclination, appears, or fails to appear, before the conjunction (“and,” “or,” or “nor”) in a series of three or more items. Winken, Blinken, and Nod. Peace, order, and good government. Snap, Crackle, and Pop. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Among over-ardent Canadian nationalists, there is a misconception that the use of a comma in these examples is an Americanism to be avoided in favor of the British habit of eschewing it.

Wrong. The comma has been embraced by The Oxford University Press so long it is sometimes called the Oxford comma. Its most fervent champion is the legendary H.W. Fowler, author of the classic Modern English Usage.

On this side of the Atlantic, it finds favour with the University of Chicago Manual of Style, the authoritative handbook for book editors, and by Strunk and White’s magnificent The Elements of Style.

A photograph of E.B. White hangs over my desk. He is seated on a wooden bench at a plain table in a Maine boat house, typing on a portable typewriter. As a place to write, it is as spare and ordered as my own office is slovenly. White’s prose was equally uncluttered. If he could find room for the serial comma, there had to be a good reason. Those who toil today at the craft he perfected would do well to pay heed.

Few newspapers do. The Canadian Press Stylebook, the Associated Press Stylebook, The Globe and Mail Style Book, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage all oppose the serial comma, as do most modern newspaper copy desks. The Daily News is supposed to be an exception. According to Daily News editor Douglas MacKay, the paper follows CP style except in cases of conflict with Strunk and White, which always reigns supreme.

Even determined defenders of the serial comma will admit that, in many cases, its omission makes little difference; even diehard opponents admit to exceptions, when the serial comma is essential for clarity.

Those exceptions can be doozies, as the perhaps apocryphal author learned when he dedicated his book to, “my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

In The Handbook of Good English Edward D. Johnson offers an equally ripe example: “I remember the gleam of the rain-washed pavement, the distant clatter of streetcars, the food smells wafting from the restaurant downstairs and the dress she wore.”

Still not convinced? From the Internet comes the shaggy dog story of the Panda who walks into a saloon and demands a meal. After wolfing down a club sandwich, the bear stands, draws a revolver, shoots out the barroom mirror, and calmly heads for the door.

“Dammit, Bear!” says the bartender, “You destroy my bar, stinkup the place, and you haven’t even paid for your lunch!”

“I’m a panda, you idiot,” replies the bear. “Look it up!”

The bartender looks up “panda” in the dictionary and finds: “large bearlike mammal, native to China. Eats shoots and leaves.”

Copyright (c) 1998 by Parker Barss Donham. All rights reserved.

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