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 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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