Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Little Commas Make Big Waves

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of taking part in a lively panel discussion entitled "More than a Century of Style," celebrating The Chicago Manual of Style. The event, held at the University of Chicago and sponsored by the public radio station WBEZ, brought out more than two hundred committed stylistas, with hundreds more tuning in to a live stream on Facebook. Here's an indication of the type of crowd that braved that rainy Chicago night: when University of Chicago Press managing editor Anita Samen announced that she was "passionately pro-serial-comma," she was met with rapturous applause.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma (or the Chicago comma, or the Harvard comma), has a way of inspiring profound emotional responses. If you need a quick refresher on the serial comma, check out Erin Brenner's primer from last year. It's the comma before the "and" in a series of the form "A, B, and C," and it's favored by the Chicago Manual though eschewed by some journalistic style guides, such as those from the Associated Press and the New York Times. (Supposedly, newspapers of the past cut out serial commas as a space-saving measure, and the tradition simply stuck.)

Along with passionate emotions, the serial comma also elicits a fair amount of humor. Take this example that's been making the rounds online over the past few months:

Another jokey example that's frequently mentioned is the apocryphal book dedication, "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God," which is intended to show how omitting the serial comma can lead to a perilous ambiguity. At the Chicago Manual event, Anita Samen provided another version of the dedication: "To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa." This, she said, was evidence of how the serial comma lends extra clarity to writing.

Later in the discussion, I said that I too was in favor of the serial comma, but I disputed the idea that it is any clearer or more logical than the competing style. I observed that Anita's example could be tweaked to show how the inclusion of the serial comma could conceivably be a source of ambiguity. If the book dedication instead said, "To my father, the Pope, and Mother Teresa," then the commas bracketing "the Pope" could be misunderstood as indicating an appositive phrase referring to "my father." That was apparently enough to blow the mind of one Twitter follower.

I'm not the first to make this point: Gabe Doyle of the Motivated Grammar blog and our own contributor Stan Carey have both covered this terrain. Stan was responding to a pseudo-controversy over Oxford University supposedly dropping the Oxford comma, which lit up the Twittersphere back in June. On the arguments over the serial comma, Stan sensibly observed, "There is no Ultimate Solution. You may indulge your preference for a serial comma or for its absence, but neither approach will suit every eventuality." I echoed this sentiment at the Chicago Manual event, advising that we often find our own punctuation style to be "clear" or "logical" simply because that's how we've been taught. Competing styles can coexist, and it's not the end of the world. Fortunately, my fellow panelists agreed with me.

If you'd like to watch the whole 90-minute event, it's now available on YouTube. WBEZ's Alison Cuddy moderated, and Anita Samen and I were joined by Carol Saller (editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor) and University of Chicago linguistics professor Jason Riggle. A good, word-nerdy time was had by all.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 11th 2011, 9:26 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Was there any commic relief, or would that have caused bad karma that could lead to the drastic enlistment of commakaze piloting?
Friday November 11th 2011, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
Interesting article and panel discussion, Ben. Liked the part about shifting styles, evolving styles. Unlike Anita, I'm a fan of the en dash but not the serial comma (although for 20 years, I religiously added the latter to work I edited). Now I like the minimalist look of omitting them; sentences just seem more old-fashioned to me with them. Unhip. Dated. Prim, even.

As for en dashes, it seems they and maybe em dashes will go the route of the hyphen as everything goes online. It's hard enough for the average Joe to get MS Word to produce the right one by combining spaces and dashes, let alone care about the size of the dash/hyphen or Unicodes. Now don't get me started about kerning or open/closed styles. ...
Friday November 11th 2011, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Mark A. (Bexley, OH)
I am guilty of the sin of inconsistency, which reflects my serial-comma ambivalence. I agree that it usually clarifies and rarely harms, but it strikes me as an unnecessary pause in a short list and even a redundancy. The serial comma and the "and" serve the same purpose. In my own writing, I'm fond of occasionally leaving out the "and" rather than the comma. I might make liberal use of the serial comma when I think it provides clarity but then leave it out when it seems simply too much. I don't advocate for being a serial-comma milquetoast, but I generally sit quietly by when people raise their banners and try to draw me into their camps.
Friday November 11th 2011, 11:24 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Keith M., I'll bet commady was comman at that event, given the lively commantary and the commaraderie among all participants. Commatose attendees would have been as rare as Haley's Commat!

The Happy Quibbler
Friday November 11th 2011, 12:13 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Thank you, Kristine F. for the additional puns. It's refreshing read to creative commants.

Do your friends threaten to have you comm-ited to a punatentionary where capital punishment is practiced? If you ever have to do hard time, watch out for the serial comma killers.
Friday November 11th 2011, 2:30 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Kieth M - "Serial comma killers" ... Ai-yi-yi! I kneel at the feat of a master! I feel incommapetent by commaparison.

Of course you've heard of the prisoner who fell in love with his female pen pal; on the morning he was released he met her and ended his sentence with a proposition. (She wept with joy; he said "Are those tears?", and she replied "Eye dew.")

R U N JL? I M N SKP; R U NVS?

The Happy Quibbler
Friday November 11th 2011, 3:06 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
K.F.,I would like to have said "Aye, I heard of the prisoner," but alas, 'tis not the case. To answer your questions: No, I'm not in jail, nor am I nervous. Not being a texter, I missed the SKP part. Oh, is it Skype? If so, the answer is yes.
If my interpretation is right, does that make me the object of a preposition?
Then there was the new prisoner who exclaimed to his cellmate: "What! No cell phones?"
Shall we exchange email addresses and stop taking up VT space and consciousness?
Friday November 11th 2011, 5:56 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Keith - Translation of my previous message: "Are you in jail? I am an escapee; are you envious?" I'm not a texter either, hence my reliance on the good old say-the-name-of-the-letter-not-the-sound-of-it method.

Do you want to know how I escaped from the jail? One night I found three mouse droppings in my cell, and I pressed them into the brick wall. The three turds made a whole, and I climbed out the hole and picked up two pebbles, one at a time. I threw away the former and used the latter to climb over defense, and I ran away!

Email addresses? What's the point of all this word play if we're not tormenting and pun-ishing innocent VT readers? I guess if they beg us to stop, we should.

The Happy Quibbler
Friday November 11th 2011, 10:04 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Kristine, thanks for the help with the translation. I like the name of the letter approach. It reminds me of the oldie but goodie:
"AB, C D PUPPIES?" "L M NO PUPPIES, IK." "O S M R.
C M P?"

I'm comfortable with using the VT space, too.
Saturday November 12th 2011, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Sean G. (Atlanta, GA)
Try learning to be awake and dreaming. Stream your writing, in this state. See what comes out. All will be surprised by seemingly new ways to read what was filtered.
Sunday November 13th 2011, 1:19 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think people are forgetting that there are only so many commas in the universe, and if we use them up too fast we'll run out and then where will we be?

The rise of email has already put a huge drain on world exclamation point reserves. People are putting exclams at the end of every sentence!!!! Even multiple multiple exclams!!!!!!!! We've been borrowing heavily from Canada because Canadians never get excited enough to use them, but even Canada's exclam holdings are not bottomless

So I suggest that for six months we not use any punctuation at all until natural growth restores our depleted coffers though we can all use as many semi colons as we want; there are plenty of those

That's all I have to say period
Sunday November 13th 2011, 8:59 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Michael Lydon - astute and clever observations! I think that some of our commas are being stolen, then raised up and forced into service as apostrophes, since the supply of real apostrophes has been depleted through reckless and blatant overuse.

For Kieth and other word-players: more fun with pun-ctuation!

1. If a mom and dad are both in college, what is the correct term for the long papers they write to earn their degrees?

2. What does a flying fish have on its back?

3. What precedes and follows a saying in favor of leaving things just as they are? What if the a saying describes exchanging one thing for another?

4. What medical procedure might be chosen by people who are reluctant to have their entire large intestine examined?

5. Why did the copy editor suddenly think she was four months pregnant?

The Happy Quibbler
Sunday November 13th 2011, 11:58 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
P.S. Hey, don't blame me - Kieth started it!
Monday November 14th 2011, 3:58 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Hello again, Kristine. Thanks for the credit, yet I'm not certain it's truly credible.

By the way, I'm hoping you will supply answers to your incredible riddles.

I hate to quibble, happy one, but in spelling my name, the rule is "i" before "e" except after "k."

And yea for the humor Michael Lydon

Aloha, Keith
Tuesday November 15th 2011, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Priyam (Ahmedabad, India)
OH GOD!!!!!
Keith M and Kristine F, are you commenting about the article or chatting???!!!
Tuesday November 15th 2011, 7:14 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Got the message, Priyam.

I will add (about the article) that it was a great addition to have the video of the panel in Chicago. It was especially good to see Ben Zimmer in action. His erudition was superior. He may want to curtail some of the "ah's" in his speech pattern. A student of mine brought this habit to my consciousness when she counted over one hundred of them in one class presentation.

Keith M.
Sunday November 20th 2011, 4:40 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Priyam - Ooops! Point taken!

A couple of loose ends ...

1. I think I'll try a Yahoo group called joke_share, for exchanging original puns and other jokes. Keith, maybe I'll see you there!

2. Parent-theses, a high fin,statusquotation marks or quidproquotation marks, a semicolonoscopy, she missed an ellipsis and thought it was three periods.

Done - bye!

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