An image of a series of commas in different colours and fonts
Opinion on ..., Resources

A proofreader’s opinion on … the serial comma

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.

An image of a series of commas in different colours and fonts
A series of commas … get 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!

*In fact, Hayes & Yeading United are so named because the club was formed from a merger between Hayes FC and Yeading FC. And yes, the fact that they use ‘&’ rather than the word ‘and’ was a little unhelpful for my example, so I chose to restyle it. Apologies to any Hayes & Yeading fans who read this.
A screenshot showing how to create a Table of Contents in the Microsoft Word 2019 ribbon

Six tips for proofreading your thesis

Your thesis will influence a major part of your university grade. Whether or not you need to get it professionally proofread (or perhaps you’re not allowed to hire a proofreader to look at it), you should still check it over yourself before submission. Wondering what to look for? Here are six tips from a professional academic proofreader.

Note: in a few places, I’ll tell you where you can find things in a current(ish) version of Microsoft Word; other word processors should have similar options. All screenshots are from Microsoft Word 2019, but if you’re using Word 2016 it will look much the same. I also assume your dissertation is being prepared for a UK university, although these tips should be useful wherever you are.

1. Check headings (of chapters, sections, tables, captions etc.). Scroll through, looking only at section headings. Are numbers in order and consistent? Have you got Sections 1, 2 and 3 in Chapter 1 but Sections 2.1, 2.2 etc. in later chapters? Is the style (italic, bold, underlined) the same across all headings at the same level?

Do the same with the titles and/or captions of tables and figures. I recently proofread an essay in which the tables were numbered as follows: 1; 2; 1.2; 1.3; 4; 5; 6; 8; 9 … The author hadn’t noticed that two tables had ‘decimal’ numbers, or that there was no Table 7. Easy to miss when the essay is being written in pieces over an extended period!

Remember: if you renumber anything in your document (or reword a heading), be sure to update any references to it in the text and table of contents. Your word processor’s search function is useful here. I also recommend making notes of any changes you make to headings, in case you need to search later for an old section heading you’ve since reworded.

2. Check references and in-text citations. Have you spelt every name correctly, in every mention? For works with multiple authors, have you used ‘&’ for some but ‘and’ for others? Pay attention to uses of ‘et al.‘ Have you been consistent with italicising it (or not!), and with whether or not you’ve included the full stop?

Make a list of in-text citations and compare it with the References list; do they all match up? Your word processor’s search function can be useful for all these points.

Pay attention to years of publication. If you’ve cited three works by Smith published in different years, but only two appear in the References, the years of publication can be the giveaway.

3. Check that each chapter starts on a new page. Rather than pressing Enter seventeen times, use Insert on the Word ribbon (or equivalent) to insert a page break; this will stop things jumping around quite so much if you have to make amendments to the text or layout later.

A screenshot showing how to insert a page break in the Microsoft Word 2019 ribbon
Inserting a page break in Word 2019

4. Check the spacing. Many universities (at least in the UK) will want double spacing. This doesn’t mean putting two spaces between each word. It means doubling the vertical space between each line of text.

You can change this in your word processor’s Layout (or equivalent) menu. Select the text, and in Word’s ribbon, go to Layout > Spacing and click the arrow in the bottom right. This will open a new menu; in the first tab, Indents and Spacing, under ‘Line spacing’, ensure that ‘Double’ is selected.

The first of two screenshots showing how to change to double spacing in Microsoft Word 2019
Double spacing step 1
The second of two screenshots showing how to change to double spacing in Microsoft Word 2019
Double spacing step 2

5. When the above ‘housekeeping’ is done, read the text. I recommend changing the format for this. You should already have everything double spaced, but making the text larger (and, perhaps, changing the font) will help your eyes to spot mistakes. Read slowly and methodically – out loud if it helps – paying attention to what’s actually on the page, not to what should be on the page. Reading paragraphs backwards – starting at the last word and working back to the first – can help.

After you’ve read through once, if you have the time to do so, put the essay to one side overnight (longer, if possible!) and read through it again later.

6. Finally, create or update your table of contents. Obviously, make sure you’ve returned it to the font and size you plan to submit it in before doing this, if you resized things for step 5. If you used the Word ribbon’s References section to create an automatic table of contents before checking your essay, you should simply be able to click ‘Update table’ and you’ll find that any changes to the wording or page numbers are updated.

Even small edits can have surprising knock-on effects with layout, so always make updating your table of contents the last thing you do before saving the final version of your essay.

A screenshot showing how to create a Table of Contents in the Microsoft Word 2019 ribbon
Creating a Table of Contents in Word 2019

A few bonus points:

– Open your word processor’s search function, type two spaces (nothing else), and search. Replace any results with a single space. Then run the same check again, and again, until it throws up no results, because each time it’ll only pick up double (but not triple, quadruple etc.) spaces. Even good typists are liable to double hit the space bar at some point in an essay of a few thousand words or more – I know I have!

– Check acronyms/abbreviations and capitalisation are consistent. And make sure you’ve set your word processor’s spell check to the correct language and region! If you’re at a UK university and have Word’s proofing set to English (United States), there might be lots of American spellings it isn’t picking up – and it might even be ‘correcting’ some British spellings to US ones without you noticing.

– Ensure any tables or figures appear as close as possible to their first mention in the text. If you mention Table 3 on page 13, but don’t display it until page 47, the reader can’t refer to it easily.

– Scan your eyes down the right side of the page, glancing at the ends of each line. Occasionally, you’ll find something that should be on the same line as whatever is at the start of the next line.

For example, perhaps in a citation one line ends with ‘p.’ and the next one starts with ‘32’, or an author called Al-Said has their name split so that ‘Al-’ ends one line and ‘Said’ starts the next. In these cases, a non-breaking space or a non-breaking hyphen are your friends.

A screenshot with some sample text showing a situation in which a non-breaking hyphen could be useful
Why a non-breaking hyphen could be useful

In Windows, hold Ctrl + Shift while typing the character in question, and you’ll see that they now appear on the same line. For Mac users, Option + Space is the way to get a non-breaking space, but non-breaking hyphens seem to be more complicated. If you’re on a Mac and know how to get one, please share in the comments!

– Check dashes and hyphens! For parentheses – like this – or for spans of numbers (pp. 112–119), you should be using an en dash (or, for parentheses, especially if you’re using Oxford style or if you’re in the United States, an unspaced em dash), not a hyphen.

You can add these using Insert > Symbol, or using your operating system’s character map. Both options are also useful for lots of other things. For example, for mathematical symbols, you can also find proper multiplication, division and minus signs in the same place (although in most fonts, good luck telling a minus sign apart from a hyphen).

Infuriatingly, given the bonus point above this one, Word doesn’t allow us to type a non-breaking en dash! Come on, Microsoft …

A screenshot showing how to insert a symbol on the Microsoft Word 2019 ribbon
Inserting a symbol in Word 2019

I hope these tips help you proofread your essay. Keep an eye on this blog for more writing and editing tips in the future, and please feel free to share this post with friends if you think it might help them.

Need a professional proofread of your thesis? I’ve been providing academic proofreading services since early 2018, and have proofread essays on subjects from cultural influences on lyrics in salsa music to stock market liquidity, and from mobile money use in the third world to receptor kinases in moss. Take a look at what I offer students, or use the contact form to send me an email, and find out how I can help you.


The Editing Podcast

I must admit that until recently, I’ve not been a big listener to podcasts. People are often surprised by this, because in my life away from editing, in my capacity as an Argentine football expert, I’ve spent the last eight years producing a podcast which I’m rather proud of. My reasoning was always that after spending several hours on my own podcast each week, I didn’t want to listen to anyone else’s. In recent months, though, I’ve started to listen to more podcasts. I’m enjoying a couple of history ones in particular, but closer to the topic of this website, I’ve just been catching up with the first two episodes of The Editing Podcast. It’s presented by Denise Cowle and Louise Harnby (the links on their names lead to their Twitter profiles), and is aimed primarily at authors, but is also very informative for editors, particularly those who are just starting out on the editorial path.

The first episode discusses the different levels of editing – in short, the difference between development editing, line editing, copy-editing and proofreading (and what those terms might mean to different people!). The second – and most recent at the time of this blogpost – focusses on the lingo or jargon of the editing world, in particular the various terms for the different bits of a book (if you’re a new editor and are puzzled about what a ‘half-title page’ is, you’ll find out here). At the end of each episode, the ladies give a recommendation each for a resource they find particularly useful. I highly recommend checking the show out, and not least because the episodes are short enough to allow repeat listens without a massive time investment, should you feel like going back and checking something (not something I can say for my Argentine football podcast, I’m afraid!).

Louise is too modest to mention it, but her own website, and the blog attached to it, The Parlour, is also an invaluable resource for writers, editors and indeed freelance professionals of any stripe. As an example, it was this post on The Parlour, which I came across a couple of years ago, which prompted me to finally stop merely thinking about taking a proofreading qualification and dive into the Publishing Training Centre‘s Basic Proofreading course – and I’m certain I can’t be the only person who has been similarly inspired by her massively helpful output. Whichever part of the publishing (or independent writing, or freelance editing) world you occupy or want to occupy, you really should check out Louise’s site and The Editing Podcast.