To Stop a Serial Comma Killer

Oct 17, 2021 | Craft, Humor

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…

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

12 Comments

  1. Patricia Doyle

    I’ve always stuck with the Oxford comma, even when it’s been out of favor. I still put two spaces after a period (or any end of sentence) when typing! Guess it’s hard for me to learn new ways to do things.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      See my reply to Corinne’s comment. 🙂

      Consistent use of the Chicago comma is never logically wrong. It can make meaning clearer. Omitting it takes extra brain cycles to determine if it’s needed or clear enough without it. The only time you must omit it is if you’re writing for hire and your in-house style demands it.

      Two spaces after a period is also fine, if you’re consistent throughout. A publisher can very easily “fix” this unless they demand you fix it before submitting the manuscript. For that, most word processing software lets you write a nice macro to change all “spacespace” to “space” – repeat until nothing is found. Aside from style requirements, self-publishing, etc., no one really cares. It’s just that it’s a typesetting convention to use only one (or really, to use the appropriate amount of space required for readability) and now that everyone and their dog considers themselves to be “desktop publishers” and uses proportional fonts (which handle this appropriate spacing automatically for you), you only need ONE SPACE. But the fact is, as long as you’re consistent about it, nobody really cares. Do what makes you happy.

      Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I love you, Corinne, but NOOOOOOoooooooo!!! LOL

      I think my problem isn’t so much that it’s okay to omit it, but it always works to include it. I like logical consistency. To say that “sometimes it’s optional” is like saying that in programming, you can sometimes omit a semicolon but only after a handful of operators and only under certain circumstances. But it’s always going to work if you use the semicolon. The brain has to do extra (and in my opinion, unnecessary) work to determine if the thing can be omitted.

      It’s like the “one vs. two spaces after a period” debate. No one really cares. It’s easy to make a macro in Word to “change two spaces to one space” and repeat until no instances of two spaces are found. Submit your manuscript to a real publisher, and they will adjust this – all they really care about is whether you’re consistent. In fact, they’d rather you did very little formatting, if any. Use an old monospace font like Courier New. Use your two spaces after a period. Don’t touch any other formatting buttons! But no, most of the people stubbornly (proudly!!) proclaiming that they are dinosaurs who can’t learn new tricks don’t understand that the whole reason for using only ONE period are strictly related to proportional fonts and formatting for publication. Unless you’re self-publishing the manuscript, trying to make it look professional, nobody cares. Just do it the same way throughout. 🙂

      If you are doing work-for-hire, the gold standard for style is whatever the company has for an in-house style guide, followed by their choice of commercial style guide, followed by yours. That simple. I have stubbornly dug in my heels over the years, but it’s kind of pointless – and if it’s not a work for hire, do whatever you want to do, so long as it’s readable and conveys meaning clearly. This is what the people who don’t care about spelling, grammar, or punctuation at all don’t seem to get – no reader wants to work that hard to decipher our writing if it doesn’t flow smoothly or make sense.

      Reply
  2. Abhishek Upadhyay

    I’m a huge fan of the Oxford Comma. Even argued with my firm’s CEO a few times; I’m surprised I’m still employed.

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      I have been in your shoes and lived to tell about it, myself! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting, fellow Oxford-Comma fan!

      Reply

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