Items in a Series and Comma Use?

Subject: Items in a Series and Comma Use?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Kirk Turner <royj -at- alltel -dot- net>
Date: Sat, 28 Jan 2006 09:32:40 -0500

Kirk Turner wondered: <<For thirty years, I've used commas after each item in a series (except, of course, the last) as is traditional. I was wondering about the current practice of omitting the comma after the second-to-last item in a series. Is this convention a fad that might revert back to the old style or an established grammar rule?>>

I'd hesitate to call it a "fad", but it is true that "open punctuation" (a minimalist approach that dispense with punctuation wherever possible) is currently more popular in some genres. The older practice you're referring to is called "the serial comma" in most style guides, and is preferred in technical communication because the result is always clear and unequivocal.

The standard example of problems that arise when omitting the serial comma is the book dedication: "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." This is often cited as proof that the comma before the "and" is essential, since otherwise the author comes off as being somewhat delusional. I interpret it differently, and take a lesson thereby: except in very unusual circumstances, nobody would assume the author was claiming God as their father or Ayn Rand as their mother.

Thus, my take on the serial comma: You'll never go wrong including it, and because it adds valuable clarity in many cases, it's easier to simply use it everywhere for consistency. But neither is it wrong to omit the comma if there is little or no possibility of readers misinterpreting the statement; in particular, because authors use commas to reinforce the sentence rhythm in fiction, tread warily about insisting on using or eliminating commas unless you've got a keen ear for sentence rhythm. The problem with omitting the comma is that it often becomes a very subjective judgment about whether the comma is necessary, and some readers will spot and wonder about the inconsistency.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Items in a Series and Comma Use: From: Kirk Turner

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