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Pedantic Punctuation, Part 1: The Serial Comma March 14, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I am a stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.1 There is no greater indication of the decline of modern civilization than the lax attitude taken towards these foundations of correct communication.  Recently, my son took the North Carolina State Writing Test for seventh graders.  Among the various metrics used to grade the test was “Conventions.” Conventions are spelling and grammar; they comprise 10% of the score.  The only way to not get full credit for Conventions is to commit some error so egregious that it renders your essay completely unintelligible.  As long as the student “comes close” to correct spelling and grammar, modern educators are satisfied.

Ahem.  Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not “conventions.”  They are rules, well defined, easily taught, and easily applied.  They indicate that the author actually cares about his work and respects the intelligence and time of his audience.  While incorrect essays in school may be overlooked by teachers, incorrect communication in the real world is viewed at best as sloppy and at worst, illiterate.

To that end, and to inaugurate a new series of occasional posts, let us address the serial comma.

The serial comma is the comma that should always be placed after the next-to-last element of a sequence, just before the “and” or “or” that joins the last element to the sequence.  This is not an optional comma, to be deleted by the sloppy or careless writer as is their wont.  It is a required element that always makes the sequence clear and unambiguous.2

Consider the sequence

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese and crackers.

Confusing?  Of course!  We’ll never settle on a dinner menu. But the serial comma removes all doubt:

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and crackers.

or

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni, and cheese and crackers.

There are some who will insist that most sentences do not suffer from this kind of potential problem and are thus exempt from the serial comma rule, as if commas are in short supply and must be hoarded for such crucial uses.  In fact, punctuation should be consistently applied throughout a document so that all lists use serial commas all the time.

Next time on Pedantic Punctuation: inappropriate use of quotation marks for “emphasis!”

1 As a result, this post is almost guaranteed to have some spelling, punctuation, or grammar error.
2 Contrarians can create sentences that are ambiguous with or without the serial comma, but these are fundamentally unsound sentences that should be rewritten anyway.

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