AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma

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
commentary.”

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.

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  • Ohmy Shrunkenhead

    I gotta give you props– and an ‘e’.

  • manicdee

    Herbivore: n. an animal that eats shoots and leaves.

  • Rufus T. Firefly

    Childish.

  • samdchuck

    They’re obviously not and the comma is therefor not needed.

    Here: “I would like to thank Oprah, God and my parents.” solved it for you. No confusion possible, even if your gullible.

  • trex67

    Either way is acceptable. Get over it.

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    Internet lowercased?

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  • amanda_chen

    It’s like which-hunting: editors should focus on more important things. Let individual writers decide whether to use the Oxford comma in their work.

  • sockatume

    Is it really so hard to use the comma where it is needed to resolve ambiguity, and the writer’s creative discretion elsewhere? There are certainly instances where the lack of a pause, and therefore comma, before the final item in the list better reflects the rhythm of the spoken equivalent. Have editors been replaced by style-guide-programmed robots?

  • socks816

    Assuming his parents are Oprah and god, then you’re correct. No comma needed. The likelihood of those two being his parents is slim.

  • samdchuck

    Terrible example, there’s zero need for an oxford comma in that situation.

  • http://www.scurrytails.com/ Jeffrey M. Bishop

    With recent over / more than and spelled-out state names decisions, AP seems open to almost anything! http://comprehension.prsa.org/?p=6259

  • http://www.uark.edu/ Charlie Alison

    The example from Driving Mr. Albert also contains a series without a serial comma (it’s been birthed, … picked up … and caught). So is the argument to be willy, nilly or willy and nilly? I’m for using the serial comma when it makes sense and not using it when it’s unneeded. As a reminder, AP style only says to drop the serial comma for “simple series,” such as red, white and blue. AP has no issue with a serial comma in a more complex sentence, such as the example cited. Lots of editors do, but the AP Stylebook does not.

  • teresaInPa

    Use it if you need it. What is so hard to figure out? Or are we all afraid someone will tell us we don’t know the proper rules and so we are uneducated Americans? Oh no!

  • James

    Americans seem to love to make rules where heuristics would do. Some sentences are ambiguous or nonsensical without a serial comma but others flow better and make equal sense. Unless you need a rigid “house style” for a reason, why have the argument?

  • Bruce Davis

    “I would like to thank my parents, Oprah and God.” The Oxford comma is seriously needed here.

  • Nick Norman

    What is the point of the Oxford comma – they don’t use it in Oxford.

  • manicdee

    the best way i have found for handling opponents of the oxford comma is to resort to sentences with no punctuation at all thus by eliminating periods commas hyphens and semicolons the reader is forced to parse the sentence multiple times looking for the logical breaks sometimes this causes confusion due to the limited availability of navigation guides but ultimately the point is made if you are too sparing or too liberal with punctuation your writing will not communicate its intended message thank you for reading and please accept my apologies for treating you so cruelly

  • kwdayboise

    I’m a convert. Now I hope you’ll ponder and fight for British-style quotation marks that make it much easier to track whether all or a portion of a sentence is a direct quotation.

  • http://batdongsaninfo.vn/ Hiệp Atlantic
  • Mark Allen

    The size of the majority — 57 percent — who would use a serial comma in the simple list FiveThirtyEight provided demonstrates that, as with many things in the English language, Oxford commas are neither right nor wrong. I use them where they feel appropriate and omit them where they feel redundant. My thoughts: http://www.copyediting.com/oxford-comma-survey-needed-third-option.

  • Seth Joseph

    I offer my support, praise, and thanks for this piece.