The Serial Comma: Blood or Brains

Serial Comma ComicA serial comma, also known as an Oxford comma, is something that causes fairly heated debates between readers and writers alike. Journalists generally despise it, and old-fashioned writers adore it.

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?

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41 thoughts on “The Serial Comma: Blood or Brains

  1. I’m pro Oxford comma, mainly because of the reasons communicated in the feature picture. I am also of the opinion that punctuation has a huge impact on how we read and process a piece of writing. The Oxford comma just makes everything flow more smoothly.

  2. I love the Oxford comma! The hardest editing job I ever had was when I was working for a company whose style guide nixed the Oxford comma. I cringed every time I had to delete one.

    Love the picture!

  3. “Let’s eat, grandma” vs. “Let’s eat grandma”…commas save lives, and while it’s not the oxford comma used here, I’m definitely for it. I like using natural pauses in my writing, using commas, m-dashes, and elipses a lot. It just makes for a more comfortable reading experience.

    • Em-dashes are also a favorite of mine, and I’ve actually posted the “Let’s eat Grandma” comic on my FB page before! 🙂 I agree, they improve the reading experience.

  4. I am sorry to be the odd man out, but I think the Oxford comma is redundant as the word “and” already separates the last two items in the series. However, as you state in your post, it may be the way we read. I read it the same, whether the last comma is used or not. By the way, I love commas (except in a series along with the word “and”). I’ve been told that I use too many commas. Hey, just my two cents.

    • Don’t worry, I know there are others who don’t like it. One could also argue that the and can be confusing as the last two could be joined like this: accounts receivable, billing and payments. Are the last two together or are they two separate things? Of course, you could always add another “and”, but it’s whatever you prefer. It’s not a great example, but I find I have to ask my co-worker about those instances at times. Thanks for your comment!

  5. When it comes to grammar and punctuation…I totally suck at it…I hardly use punctuation while writing also because I just can’t process it…I guess if I will ever write a book my editor will jump from terrace after seeing my no punctuation policy 🙂
    But if you like it Brittany…stick with it…it’s your style of writing 😀

    • Some of us just are made for it. It’s doesn’t make you a good writer or a bad writer, it’s just something that some of us do and some don’t. And that what editors are for! 🙂

  6. I am absolutely for it. It demonstrates all the natural pauses, and those pauses create the intonation needed to like reading, in my opinion anyway. 🙂

    • I agree, I probably use commas too often, but I stick to that incorrect lesson that commas are where you would pause when speaking. I have improved since my years of being a student, but I find that commas are like salt: just enough makes it better, too much and you’ve ruined it.

  7. In school, I was told the serial comma was unnecessary and to never use it but it always felt right to me. To this day I have miniature internal arguments about what rule I should follow.

  8. i totally agree with you…. i think it’s important to have a serial comma to separate three items from each other just like the photo…hahaha *highfive*

  9. I am pro the serial comma as I think it adds an extra layer of clarity for the reader. I always prefer to read something that makes use of the serial comma but that may be due to age and how I was taught to use the English language at school.

    I guess it is very much a case of ‘horses for courses’ and will be a debate that will rage for many years to come. Neither side is wrong in their argument, yet neither side will ever be completely right either. You’re right in your assessment that the use (or lack thereof) of the serial comma is down to personal preference and is not a case of being either right or wrong. But what a fascinating debate! 🙂

    • Ah, another fan of the serial comma! 🙂 Good to hear it! It is a very interesting debate, and it will go on forever I believe. Both are style choices that are left to the writers, publishing houses, and style guides.

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