Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Smackdown!: Serial killers vs. serial commas

PhotobucketSerial killers

WHO?: Insane people who, to paraphrase an old Lay's commercial, can't kill just one.

PROS: Umm ... they cull the herd?

CONS: Crazy. Stabbingy. Shooty. Poisony.

PhotobucketSerial commas

WHAT?: That comma used between the last two items in a series of three or more. In "A, B, and C," it's the comma between "B" and "and."

PROS: In complicated sentences, can help avoid confusion.

CONS: I've got nothing.

WINNER: I know people who hate the serial comma. At least once a year, I have to defend its use in the pages of our magazine. "We don't like it! This other magazine I'm pointing to right now doesn't use it!" a few editors will say. That's all they've got. "It can add clarity in complex sentences--and we often use complex, tech-heavy sentences," I inevitably point out. And we keep using it.

Also, when I was a lowly editorial assistant at William Morrow, a novelist once a wrote a note to his editor: "I loathe the serial comma."

Really? I envy the leisure time you use to develop loathing for helpful punctuation. Perhaps you could use that time for something more useful--say, extra whacking-off time.

This is just a long way of crowning the serial comma the winner of this Smackdown! You kick serial-killer butt, dude. The forces of copyediting darkness will have to pry you out of my cold, dead sentences.


Dave said...

Huh, I used to use them and then got yelled at by people. Now I'm used to leaving them out and you a professional are telling me I was right? Damn.

Jim Donahue said...

Well ... much of grammar and style isn't as black-and-white as you might think. Some style guides will say to use the serial comma, some will say not to do so.

I grew up using it in school, and the publisher where I first worked after college, Morrow, also used the serial comma as house style. Many newspapers and magazines don't use it anymore. I think people view it as "old fashioned." What I don't get is why those who don't use the serial comma seem to actively hate it. That's weird.

But I think we can agree that serial killers are bad.

Grammarian@mindspring.com said...

Cereal fillers are also bad.

Jim Donahue said...

True. That's why I changed the brand of dry dog food I buy.

fermicat said...

I use the serial comma. I think it makes the sentence easier to read.

MsYvone said...

Dave, dude, I'm with ya. I used the Serial Comma, then people started telling me to take it out. They also yelled at me for spelling Colour with a U. Then they took Pluto away from us. what's this world coming to?

I'm still using the Serial Comma, U in Colour and Humour, and Pluto is still a planet in my book dammit.

Jim Donahue said...

Glad you use the serial comma, but a U in colour? Are you INSANE???