Serial Comma

CommaA friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, “Having a change of heart. Thinking of adopting the Oxford comma.”

It got me thinking (and distracted).

Use of the Oxford Comma was drilled into my head in high school and college. At some point, I’m not sure when, the Oxford Comma fell out of favor. All the documents, magazines, books, flyers, whitepapers–anything that I read–stopped using it. I wasn’t sure why, but a technical writer told me that it was “no longer used.” (As far as I can tell, this change came from journalism guidelines.)

These days I don’t see the serial comma in books (unless they are older than 20 years or so). When I first noticed the change, I didn’t think much of it. I was a little curious, I suppose, but grammar and punctuation rules tend to change over time. So in whatever writing I did, I went with what I saw others doing, and I dropped the serial comma. My friend’s Facebook post made me curious, so I started looking around to see which way was considered proper (as proper as such rules get). To my surprise, The Elements of Style (required for anyone wishing to write) suggests using the serial comma (Oxford Comma = serial comma) after the final term in a series. How did I miss this? Grammar Girl, whose podcasts I never miss, is also a proponent. She writes:

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.

Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read. Really, unless space is incredibly expensive, I can’t imagine why anyone would decide the best method is sometimes leave it out and sometimes add it in.

Grammar Girl points out the fact that that Oxford University Press never actually dropped the Oxford Comma from its own guidelines. The source that originally wrote the news that the Oxford Comma/serial comma was dropped issued a correction the following day (this ‘news’ is about two years old now).

Still, if you Google “Oxford Comma dropped,” there are countless stories with the sensational headline, “Oxford Drops Oxford Comma.” I’m not sure what kind of followup, if any, these articles had. I suppose the headline is interesting, hence the rapid propagation of the non-story.

Now I am in a quandary. Do I use it, going along with what my respected resources have to say on the matter, or go with the AP Stylebook and New York Times Manual of Style, and drop it (both of these are for journalism), going along with what others may think is correct. Alas, I cannot betray the Elements of Style.

Here’s to Keith: I’m going with the Oxford Comma as well! While I like to write, anyone who has read posts on this blog is well aware that I have my share of typos, most of which are a result of typing too fast and not bothering to review posts (its just a blog with limited readership, after all). I’m not one to get too caught up in a grammar debate, but this issue is something that strikes me as interesting and of importance.

(If you really want to be confused, read about adding a possessive quote at the  end of name that ends in S. On this matter, as always, I am sticking the The Elements of Style. Matts’s is correct.)

Why put this on a blog about software? This blog is about “other stuff” as well, but software engineers do have to write a lot, and we should do it properly.

Wikipedia: Serial Comma
Wikipedia: The Elements of Style
Amazon.com: The Elements of Style (required)
Grammar Girl: Did Oxford Really Drop the Oxford Comma?

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