If you aren’t familiar with what a serial comma is, then I’ll give you a quick overview:
1) I had eggs, toast, and orange juice for breakfast.
2) I had eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast.
The first uses a serial comma. The second does not. The serial comma is the second comma in the first example and it is used to separate and distinguish different items in a list. I use them in my own writing, but a colleague of mine, who I collaborate with on almost every writing project that we undertake, does not. We both have our reasons, and although I regard her opinions highly, I like to think that I am correct (insert stubbornness here).
Those against the serial comma argue that it is pointless, takes up unnecessary space, and adds antiquity to the writing. Those for it argue that without it, readers become confused. For an example, take a look at the picture featured in this post and give me a virtual high five if you agree.
I’ve been thinking about the serial comma lately as it tends to be something that all writers have an opinion about. Whether they follow a style guide, or they simply grew up using it one way or another. Then it got me to thinking, perhaps it’s not a matter of opinion alone, but a matter of how each individual reads.
When I read, I appreciate that serial commas let me know when something is either “this and this” together, or if it’s “this, and this” separately. It adds an element of readability to the text and it lets me know exactly what the writer is saying. I can’t confuse it because the meaning is obvious.
So, just as the nature vs nurture argument goes, I think that instead of being something that we grow up either using or not using, the serial comma’s necessity is in our minds. It would be extremely difficult to prove, and I don’t even know how you would begin to study how an individual processes words personally while reading, but it makes sense when you think about it.
I require clean and easy to follow writing to really get involved in a story. My definition of that could be very different from someone else’s. Another person may prefer thick and heavy literature that involves a more intensive process. All of the aspects that go into that work effect how we read them silently. That’s why punctuation was created.
If it were simply that we were used to using an Oxford comma or not, I don’t believe that the debates between those that practice using them and those that don’t would be so forceful. It’s one of the biggest and longest style arguments out there, and every writer, and many readers, have an opinion on it, even if they don’t know its proper name. Both sides make sense, although I hate to admit it.
To imply that readers won’t be able to differentiate between three list items that are supposed to be separated instead of one and then a separate combined, is to say that readers aren’t all that smart, when really, in general, the opposite is true. Reading has forever been a sign of intelligence, and so we should believe that a reader can divide a simple list without too much trouble.
On the other hand, it is up to writers to make the reading experience flow smoothly and efficiently. If we don’t use the proper punctuation and take pains to ensure that the reader can understand us, they may get the wrong idea and stop reading or lose interest.
We can be taught to read, but we aren’t taught what that’s like inside of our own heads, so I think that when we look over a piece of writing and hear the words, we create our own style. An extremely big part of that style is derived from punctuation alone. That style defines what our reading experiences are like personally, as opposed to what we think others should get from the book or article.
It’s easier to think that we are raised to either love or hate the serial comma, but I think the issue is a little deeper than that. It’s part of how we read that defines our preferences in terms of punctuation, varied spelling, the usefulness of chapters, aversions to short fiction or non-fiction, and so on. That “inside of your head” reading, that you teach yourself, is, I imagine, a wonderful and virtually unexplored territory of immense depths that could teach us a lot about language and how reading effects us. Therefore, the argument is in our brains, not our blood.
Either way, I’m pro-serial comma and proud of it.
Which side of the debate are you on and why?