Since I became a proofreader, in early 2018, there’s one question above all others which people have asked me upon hearing what I do. Strangers have asked it. Friends have asked it. Other editors and proofreaders, however, haven’t asked it. The question is:
So, what’s your opinion on the serial comma?
It confused me initially, because through first a lifetime of caring deeply about good writing, and then nearly a year of proofreading training, it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to have much of an opinion either way on the serial comma.
But in that first year of striking out into the proofreading world, it seemed I’d missed a memo. One online job posting – I forget where exactly, but the phrase has stayed with me – even said that candidates needed to have ‘a strong and passionate opinion on the serial comma’.
This question popped up again fairly recently, so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.
What is the serial comma?
It’s the comma some people like to insert before ‘and [the final item]’ in lists.
No, really, that’s all it is. Some style guides insist on it at all times, including the Oxford University Press style guide, which is why it’s often known as the Oxford comma in the UK. Others prefer to avoid it unless it adds clarity.
It’s one of countless style decisions which have to be made by publishers, communications companies, universities, governments and other organisations, but for whatever reason it seems it’s one that exerts a particular hold on the public imagination.
What do you mean by ‘unless it adds clarity’?
To answer that question, I’m going to refer to one of the sacred texts of editing and proofreading: New Hart’s Rules. NHR is a style guide used as one of many references for good practice by editors and proofreaders. It’s published by Oxford University Press, but I think it’s admirably even-handed. Warning! Small amount of technical stuff coming up:
[T]he last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity, particularly when any of the items are compound terms joined by a conjunction, and it is sometimes helpful to the reader to use an isolated serial comma for clarification even when the convention has not been adopted in the rest of the text. (NHR (2014), pp. 76–77)
A ‘compound term joined by a conjunction’ could be any single thing which includes the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ (and perhaps one or two others I’m forgetting) as part of its name.
As an example, let’s pretend I’m proofreading a book about England’s Southern Football League, for a publisher which prefers to avoid the serial comma. Such a book might include the sentence:
The meeting brought together the bosses of Weston-super-Mare, Taunton Town, Harrow Borough and Hayes and Yeading United.
Readers who don’t follow the lower divisions of English football could be forgiven for thinking that Harrow Borough and Hayes is one club, while Yeading United is another (especially given that the places in question aren’t a million miles apart geographically, and club mergers aren’t unheard of*). In fact, the third club in the list is Harrow Borough; the fourth (the compound term joined by a conjunction) is Hayes and Yeading United.
This ambiguity can be avoided with the use of a serial comma, so that the above sentence becomes:
The meeting brought together the bosses of Weston-super-Mare, Taunton Town, Harrow Borough, and Hayes and Yeading United.
Sometimes, for example in the later stages of book production (when, once pages have been designed and laid out, every change is more expensive and time consuming), we might consider whether the meaning is clear enough as it is.
If, say, either Harrow Borough or Hayes and Yeading were as famous as Manchester United or Real Madrid, the sensible thing could be to leave the original sentence as it is, since no reader would be genuinely confused by the absence of the serial comma.
Given the clubs’ levels of fame in the real world, though, an isolated serial comma in this example helps the reader by adding clarity over which club’s name contains the word ‘Hayes’, even if the rest of the book doesn’t use the serial comma as standard.
So, what is my opinion on the serial comma?
Professionally, I always try to maintain the attitude that I’m not paid to have opinions. Clients don’t pay me to rearrange punctuation to my own personal tastes; they pay me to make sure their style guide has been applied correctly to a given piece of text.
If a client says they want a comma before absolutely every instance of the word ‘and’, regardless of context, I’ll obviously point out why it’s not a good idea to insist on such a ‘rule’, but that’s not happened to me yet (and I doubt it will). I’ve worked for some clients who want a serial comma only when necessary, and for others who like to use them in all lists.
If you really want to know, my preference in my own writing is for the ‘only when necessary’ approach. But is it, to quote that job posting, ‘a strong and passionate opinion’? No. As with many, many other style points, there’s no right or wrong. Go with whichever usage you prefer – just make sure you’re consistent!