English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Are You Serial with That Comma?

Good morning, and welcome to Above the Law’s latest Friday series: Grammer Pole of the Weak.

Last week, we discovered that 62.3% of readers think that it’s all right to use alright. As a grammar nazi, I can’t even describe how much it pained me to write the phrase “Grammer Pole of the Weak.”

Which reminds me: readers, the title of this weekly poll is supposed to be ironic. Are you serial with all of these emails correcting our spelling?

Speaking of being serial, let’s turn to the topic of this week’s discussion: the serial comma….

We’ve written previously about the standard comma, but today we’ll be analyzing its cousin with bad dental hygiene.

The serial comma hails from jolly old England, and it’s also known as the Oxford comma. For those of you who are unfamiliar with its usage (how is that possible?), the serial comma comes before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more items. Need some more clarification?

Let’s turn to Grammar Girl and get educated:

When you put a comma before the word “and” in a list — a series — it’s called a serial comma. For example, if you write, “Squiggly, Aardvark, and Grammar Girl” that comma after “Aardvark” and before “and” is the serial comma.

Some people use the serial comma and some don’t. I prefer to use the serial comma because I believe it adds clarity, but it’s a style choice.

And clearly, if you want your writing to be stylish, you’ll be using the serial comma. Are you still confused? Maybe a picture will help (gavel bang: Lawyerist):

So after using it for a century, why the heck did Oxford itself apparently advocate, in a style guide, against the use of their very own comma? According to USA Today, the offensive guide was only for use in Oxford University’s press department:

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Well, it’s a good thing that the people at Oxford got with the program, or else William Strunk, Jr. would have had to rise from the grave and slap them upside the head with The Elements of Style. The good folks at The Chicago Manual of Style and the U.S. Government Printing Office would have joined in on that beatdown, because they all strongly advocate for the use of the serial comma.

So, readers, we now turn this discussion to you. Do you use the serial comma? Or are you like those heathens at the Associated Press, and do you dispense with its use?

Do you use the serial comma?

  • Yes, and I'll strangle, maim, and kill you if you don't. (82%, 1,565 Votes)
  • No, and I'll punch, kick and bite you if you try to make me. (18%, 346 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,907

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Did Oxford Drop the Oxford Comma? [Grammar Girl]
The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Issues [Lawyerist]
Twitter Oxford comma commotion punctuated by fact [USA Today]

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of Grammer Pole of the Weak

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