Death to Serial (Comma) Killers

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. Some of them are passionate, even about the little things. So I say — with the certainty of contradiction — that when it comes to the serial comma, the literary folks have it right and the journalists have it wrong.

Despite their common heritage in language, analysis, and storytelling, journalists and literary folks belong to two different “discourse communities.” I learned that term from a great writing teacher and 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.

In my life, I’ve joined dozens of language clubs, required for my membership as a child, a parent, a brother, a Catholic, a New Yorker, a Long Islander, a Yankee fan, a girls’ soccer coach, a writing teacher, a medievalist, the grandson of immigrants, a resident of Florida, a rock musician, and many more. If you are in a room with my mother and she’s talking on the phone, you can tell from her conversation style whether she’s talking to her Italian relatives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan or her Jewish relatives in suburban New Jersey.

Philosophers form a language club (epistemology, ontology, metaphysics); so do baseball players (blue dart, high cheese, can of corn); so do jazz musicians (riff, downbeat, syncopation); 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 pornographers.

In one of the most startling footnotes I’ve ever read, David Foster Wallace offers a taxonomy of terms used in the making of pornography: “Like all psychically walled communities, the adult industry is rife with code and jargon.” As one of more than a dozen examples, he expounds on wood: “Wood is a camera-ready erection; woodman is a dependably potent male performer; and waiting for wood is a discreet way of explaining what everybody else in the cast and crew is doing when a male performer is experiencing wood trouble, which latter term is self-evident.”

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:

  1. I will write an essay like this one, inserting serial commas wherever necessary.
  2. My editor, Mallary Tenore, will take them out for The Poynter Institute’s Web site, which follows AP style.
  3. Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, will put them all back in for the book version.
Now check this out, the beginning of a personal essay by the same Ms. Tenore:
The death we all know lives in hearses, bagpipes, and graveyards. The death I know lives in Maybelline mascara, 15-year-old cars, and oversized clothes. I’ve tried most of my life to save these things.
“Hey, Mallary, what’s up with all those serial commas?”

“I like them,” she says. “They make things clearer.”

So the editor who takes out my serial commas fights for 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 from author Michael Paterniti that contains two of them:

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.
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, whose length 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 helps me prepare for the next one.

To use the serial comma well, it helps to ask what we mean by a series. Easiest to understand is the series of words:

“The 1960s became famous for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.”

Or a series of phrases:

“Abraham Lincoln prayed that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people would survive and prosper, even after the devastation of the Civil War.”

Or even a series of clauses:

“When hell freezes over, when all the rivers run dry, and when swallows forget to come back to you-know-where, that’s when I’ll vote Republican.”

In each case, the final comma keeps each element of meaning in its place.

The Washington Post‘s Robert J. Samuelson 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.”

Practical advice:

1. The longer the elements in a series, the more likely you will need the serial comma, even if you belong to a language club that reviles them.

2. Read an edition of The New York Times to hunt for places where the serial comma could have been used. Write them in with a pencil and consider the difference.

3. Make a list of the discourse communities to which you belong. Is there anything in this list that surprises you?

4. When you enter a new professional or academic community, make sure you know where it stands on the serial comma and other language issues. Learn what is expected of you before you attempt to violate it.

5. Fight to the death (or at least to the pain) for the serial comma.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.