Re: Items in a Series and Comma Use?

Subject: Re: Items in a Series and Comma Use?
From: Dick Margulis <margulisd -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
Date: Sat, 28 Jan 2006 09:50:07 -0500

Geoff Hart wrote:

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.

I've noticed, over the last few years, that supposedly well-edited books--bestselling nonfiction and fiction from large, old-line trade houses, often in a second or third or later printing, after which there is no excuse for residual errors--have quite a lot of internal inconsistency in comma use in general (not just the use of the Oxford comma), something I find annoying and mildly distracting as a reader.

What _seems_ to be happening is that modern writers and editors have backed completely away from the notion that comma use should follow a consistent set of formal rules. Instead, they've gone back to the earliest historic use of the comma's precursor, the breath mark, and now use the comma only or at least primarily to indicate rhythm. I honestly don't know whether this trend is the leading edge of a self-conscious nouveau vague or if it is just testament to dumbing down of American education through the triumph of Whole Language over traditional teaching methods.

Of course the above observation does not apply to all books. Some writers write for the eye; others write for the ear. In the former group, you're likely to find fairly consistent, rules-based commas usage. It's the latter group where authors get uppity with editors about putting commas in odd places so that the prose "sounds right."

In any case, for technical writing and, indeed, any business writing that falls outside the marcom umbrella, I agree that keeping the Oxford comma is the safest choice. For marcom, it's usually better to drop it, whether you are following AP style for a news release or writing a print ad. However, this requires great care in crafting sentences to avoid any potential ambiguity.

Dick Margulis


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Items in a Series and Comma Use: From: Kirk Turner
Items in a Series and Comma Use?: From: Geoff Hart

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