It’s great to see that Nate Silver’s 538 is finally hitting its stride. Stepping aside from the conflicts of politics and sports, the data site has decided to weigh in on a controversy that truly ignites the passion of partisans. Forget Red States versus Blue States, campers. Forget Brazil vs. Argentina in the World Cup. Want to see the fur fly? Debate the Oxford comma.
The Oxford or serial comma (which I prefer) is the one that comes before the “and” in a series such as: “Kelly, Al, Kenny, Ellyn, Jill, Butch, and Roy teach at Poynter.” AP style, which Poynter follows, omits that final comma, leaving “Butch and Roy” attached like “Siegfried and Roy.”
I devote a chapter in my book “The Glamour of Grammar” to my preference for that final comma, and now believe that AP style should now include it. Here is a condensed version of what I had to say. Since I’m quoting from a book, the serial comma will be preserved throughout.
Advocate use of the serial comma
I have spent my career navigating between literature and journalism, trying to learn from both worlds. From my training and experience as an English professor, I carried into the newsroom the power of close reading, a respect for narrative, and a theoretical understanding of the writing process. From years of working with reporters and editors, I’ve gained a sense of craft, a respect for readers, and a compass that points me toward mission and purpose.
Though I embody these two language traditions in equal amounts, I have preferences, and some of them are passionate, even about the little things. So I say with the certainty of inevitable contradiction that when it comes to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before “and” in a series. I need it.
Despite their common heritage in language, analysis, and storytelling, journalists and the literati belong to two different “discourse communities.” I learned that phrase from scholar Carolyn Matelene, and have found it one of the most useful concepts for understanding language. A simpler way to think of a discourse community is as a “language club,” a place where members share the same lingo.
Philosophers form a language club; so do baseball players; so do jazz musicians; so do trial lawyers, tax lawyers, and estate attorneys; so do medical doctors and witch doctors; so do scientists and Scientologists; so do drug dealers and gang bangers; so do straights and gays; so do Buddhist monks; so do kindergarten kids; so do runway models.
Believe it or not, we are back to the serial comma. For three decades, I have included that final comma in a series only to watch helplessly as my journalism editors pluck it out with tweezers. The absurdity of this situation will become apparent:
- I will write an essay like this one, inserting serial commas wherever necessary.
- Mallary Tenore, my former editor at the Poynter Institute, which follows AP style, will take them out for our website.
- Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, which favors serial commas, will put them all back in for the book version.
When Mallary writes for her blog, she includes them. “I like them,” she says. “They make things clearer.” So the editor who took out my serial commas fights to keep her own. It’s like being a Yankee fan married to a Red Sox fan. You can’t win.
To own a preference is one thing, to peddle it another, so let’s test the value of the serial comma in a paragraph that contains two of them, from author Michael Paterniti:
But the Mississippi isn’t open for baptisms today. A momentary upriver thaw has set it loose with high water, and by the time it’s made St. Louis, by the time it’s been birthed from its first trickles out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, picked up speed and caught the blue pulse of the St. Croix River south of St. Paul; after it’s already borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri, it’s one pissed and frothy mother rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre- history. (from Driving Mr. Albert)
I count 97 words in that passage. The first sentence contains only eight words. That means the author is asking the reader to manage an 89-word sentence, a clever, flowing description, the length of which mimics the actions it describes. Just as a river needs banks, a sentence like this needs just the right punctuation to keep the meaning from flooding our ability to comprehend. That semicolon in the middle provides visual relief and lets the reader take a quick breath. The commas help the author organize two great lists: “borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri” and “rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre-history.” Deleting the serial comma leaves holes in the trousers of the story. When I see that final comma followed by “and,” it alerts me that I’m coming to the end of the list and prepares me for the next one.
Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post thinks there’s more at stake here than just a few missing squiggles on the page: “If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social
An alternative view comes from the punk band Vampire Weekend when they ask the musical question “Who gives a f— about an Oxford comma?” The answer, boys, is “I do.”
Apparently, so do the readers of 538. A majority voted to include it. There is hope for this democracy yet.