Journalists Found to Be Serial (Comma) Killers

When the 2013 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook was released recently, National Public Radio noted the occasion.

Morning Edition male host Steve Inskeep briefly discussed some changes in the newest version of the “bible of news writing.” And then he mentioned something that, he said, “didn't change.”

“Still no serial comma,” he said.

Wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Mose is a big fan of the serial comma, which precedes the conjunction (usually and) before the final item in a series.

But people have (for many years) taken to eliminating that comma, which Mose blames on a mistaken reading of the AP Stylebook.

In fact, Mose lists the dis of the serial comma as one of five (or is it six?) incorrect things that journalists are taught in college.

In the AP Stylebook's Punctuation Guide, three paragraphs address the use of the comma “IN A SERIES.”

Let's get something clear up front: It is never grammatically wrong to use the serial comma. Never.

Some writers see it as unnecessary, a nuisance, mere clutter amid clean prose. But that is only personal preference, with no grammatical “science” to support the omission.

As part of its preference for spare construction, The AP Stylebook suggests that the serial comma should be dropped “in a simple series.”

Did you hear that: In a SIMPLE series. Not every series.

The examples given for when the comma should be dropped: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

But two paragraphs follow those examples to explain that the serial comma probably should be used much – if not most – of the time.

“Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

“Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: ...”

A couple of examples are given, but Mose interprets “complex series” liberally. Complex means that some elements of the series involve at least two or three words, often including oozing adjectives that don't want to be limited to the words they're supposed to modify.

The serial comma helps to stop what Mose calls “adjective bleed” – when a modifier in a series might unintentionally leech into subsequent words in the series.

And the serial comma is a signal to the reader that the series is coming to an end – that the next word isn't, for example, another object of a previous verb or preposition, or another word to be modified by an earlier adjective.

Mose subscribes (mostly) to the rule in “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

“red, white, and blue

“gold, silver, or copper”

And the AP Stylebook makes an exception for only “a SIMPLE series.”

Despite your flippant comment, Mr. Inskeep, the serial comma lives!

Use it at will!