The Serial Comma – The smallest thing that can start an argument.

Although there are many small things that can start an argument, the smallest has to be the serial comma. It is not commonly used in British English, with the notable exception of the Oxford University Press and its famous dictionary. On the other side of the Atlantic, it appears to be universally used in American English, but I am unsure of the Canadian stance on the subject. So the British describe the colours of their flag as ‘red, white and blue’, whereas the Americans see theirs as ‘red, white, and blue’.

The writing of a story is a journey for the author. I expected this when I started, and it proved to be true, but not just on the larger scale of storytelling where you have to ask yourself what you should write next. Writing requires self-analysis, so you look at your prose more carefully than a reader ever will. You remove a word from a sentence only to reinsert it, then read the two versions aloud to listen to the difference in cadence before making a final judgment. You deliberate as to whether or not to leave two sentences as separate entities or connect them with a semi-colon. You look at how many dialogue tags you have used, as the overuse of ‘he said’ and ‘she replied’ slows down the pace of the conversation. I did all of this and more as I melded an idea with a blank piece of paper to form a tale, and during the many hours of reading my prose aloud I noticed one particular discrepancy between what I was saying and what was written on the page.

When reading a list of three or more items, I attached equal emphasis to each element, including the last one. I naturally paused after the penultimate item, yet there was no comma on the page to reflect this. Although hardly a ‘eureka moment’ to rival that of Archimedes, it did make me look again at this small but divisive issue for those with a keen interest in writing and word craft. I revised my opinion and concluded the Americans were right, just as they were when they adjusted the spelling of ‘theatre’ to ‘theater’ and ‘centre’ to ‘center’. Here was another example of colonial commonsense supplanting entrenched traditions.

British purists would argue that the comma replaces the word ‘and’ in a list, so the final comma is unnecessary, but I now see it differently. When you say a list, you pause before every item, including the last one. The word ‘and’ just signifies the final element of the list. That could be seen as a matter of opinion, but the serial comma does something more noble: it adds clarity and consistency to writing at no expense.

If I were overcome with a desire for crisps (potato chips to Americans) and went to buy a selection of flavours, the serial comma would help me greatly. I would say the following.

‘I’d like some salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, and smoky bacon crisps, please.’
‘Certainly. One packet of each?’
‘Yes, please.’

To which I would receive three packets of traditionally flavoured potato products. However, someone who is unfamiliar with the varieties of British crisps, and who refrains from using the serial comma, would have a confusing experience.

‘I’d like some salt and vinegar, cheese and onion and smoky bacon crisps, please.’
‘I’m sorry, but we don’t sell “onion and smoky bacon” flavour crisps.’
‘That’s not what I wanted.’
‘Then what do you want?’
‘I’ll rephrase my request. I’d like a packet of cheese and onion, smoky bacon and salt and vinegar crisps, please.’
‘I’m afraid we don’t have any “smoky bacon and salt” crisps either, and “vinegar” crisps don’t sound very appealing.’
‘No, I want some salt and vinegar, smoky bacon and cheese and onion crisps.’
‘Smoky bacon and cheese?’
‘Oh, I give up!’

Since two items in the list contain the word ‘and’, it is impossible to write the list correctly without using a serial comma. Haters of the serial comma would have to grudgingly concede this point, but they would probably argue that in all other cases the comma is unnecessary. However, this leads to inconsistency, which is not a desirable thing in good writing. So the serial comma adds clarity to difficult lists while subtracting nothing from any list, and using it is consistent with the way in which the semi-colon is used in lists. When list elements themselves contain a comma, they must be separated with a semi-colon, and such lists always use a semi-colon after the penultimate element.

Clarity and consistency are worth pursuing in the course of writing, and using a serial comma achieves this handsomely. Anyone who has never given this any thought may think it to be a storm in a teacup that hardly warrants a mention, but that would be to underestimate the level of vitriol this subject can provoke among wordsmiths.

If you ever want to shut up a group of physicists, just ask them to explain dark energy, then sit back and enjoy the silence. If you want to do the opposite with a group of writers, just ask for an opinion on the use of the serial comma and you will not be able to get a word in edgeways.

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