Passions Run High
It is no secret that I am a fan of the “Chicago comma.” You may know it as the serial comma or the “Oxford comma.” According to Lexico:
The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:
We sell books, videos, and magazines.
It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press. Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:
These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.
The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma.
I’ve been on a campaign to rebrand the generic serial comma as the “Chicago comma,” at least on this side of the pond. The claim may be disputed, but it’s clear from Oxford, Chicago, and the Serial Comma that Chicago is about six pages more passionate about the subject than Oxford, so fight me.
AP Style calls for its omission unless the meaning would be unclear without it. Since the meaning is always clearer with it, I choose to ignore AP and cry, “Fake news!” At least I will never end up on a list of hilarious serial comma omissions.
That Time I Stopped a Serial Comma Killer
Once upon a time, I worked as a fledgling technical writer for a large corporation. The department secretary was my first editor, and I must preface this whole sordid tale by saying that I still rank her among the best editors I’ve worked with throughout my career. I have worked with some who were worth their weight in gold, quite literally; I think Judy L. may have been one of the most underappreciated, but not by me.
Except for this one time. You see, Judy was a “serial comma killer.” I insisted on inserting that final comma before the coordinating conjunction at the end of a series of things, and she’d take it right back out again – every time. She argued that it was not appropriate in “business writing”; I insisted that it was like the “Little Black Dress” of punctuation, and could never be out of place. Finally, I went to the bookstore on my lunch hour to gather evidence that would satisfy any judge and jury. (I was also in law school, at the time, and I have always felt the need to back up my arguments with facts.) I could not afford a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, back then, but after perusing the many style guides on the bookstore shelves, I settled on two that looked authoritative enough: AP Stylebook and Gregg Reference Manual.
It was here that my venture turned Machiavellian. Gregg was a well-known name in the secretarial profession. Gregg also wrote the most widely accepted textbooks for typing and shorthand. Gregg would be a trusted authority for my “serial comma killer.” The only problem? Gregg agreed with me. AP agreed with her. I took the books to the office and made the “serial comma killer” a deal: Choose your expert (without flipping through the books) and we shall forever keep our peace, following its dictum.”
Of course, she chose Gregg.
I won, I won, I won!!
I was very young. Years later, I realized that the corporate style guide probably agreed with Judy, and that in corporate writing-for-hire, the in-house style guide is king. She could have thrown the book – a sharp-edged, three-ring binder – at me, but didn’t. Odds are good that only three people had ever read it: the author, Judy, and my boss. Given that I was writing for an internal audience (not for customers), it wasn’t exactly the hill anyone else wanted to die on.
Years later, writing for an external audience, I would do battle over “title case” vs. “all lowercase” or “sentence case” for headings in user guides. But that’s a tale I’ll take to my grave…