SGAL: Serial Commas

I’m starting a new “series”: The Style Guide According to Lori (SGAL). The topic for this first edition is the Serial Comma. In general, there are a few style/grammar rules that do not make sense to me. While I would never apply these in formal writings for a client, this is how I tend to write things that are intended for a casual audience.

The Serial Comma

In the SGAL, the use of a serial comma is always mandatory.

What Is a Serial Comma

The Serial Comma is the last comma in a list of items within a sentence.

“The serial comma…is the comma used immediately before a coordinating conjunction (usually and or or, and sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma

Consider this example about pie:

  • They wanted to sample chocolate, coconut, berries and cream.
  • They wanted to sample chocolate, coconut, berries, and cream.

Did they want to try three pies or four? Does the shop have a pie with berries, a cream pie, and a “berries & cream” pie? Unless you know the whole menu and/or the intent of the customer, you can’t be sure of their desires. And, what is the purpose of a pie shop if not to satisfy desires? hmmmm?

The serial comma originated in Oxford and was also supported at Harvard University.

Why Use a Serial Comma

The use of a serial comma enhances readability (giving the reader another mental “pause”) and adds clarity—or provides unambiguity.

Even if the comma is not necessary for clarity or to provide unambiguity, the mental “pause” the reader will take will enhance readability.

Why We Avoided the Serial Comma

Back in ye olden tymes…

Think back to a time when printed newspapers were the key (only?) source of news. The rationale was that the serial comma took up space. In the printing technology of the time, every single character in a story mattered. Saving commas on a story could make the difference between fitting it on the page or not.

And then we went digital…

Once we had digital input of news stories and print layout–along with adjustments for leading and kerning of fonts–this was far less important and might not even matter. By then, however, it was standard practice in the journalism industries.

Today…

Mainstream

Even with all the technological advances, both the Associated Press (AP) and Chicago Manual of Style require skipping the serial comma.

Recent News

The Oxford PR Guide (yes, part of the same Oxford that requires the serial comma) recommended leaving out the serial comma.

The SGAL

Consider these font/style/type abilities:

  • No more need to adjust the text/copy/content of a story to make it fit the space allowed by print.
    • Print space can be quite different with adjustments to font size, spacing, leading, and kerning. Within the parameters of the assignment, any story can easily fit into any story block in the page layout.
    • With so few printed stories and a never-ending webpage for each article, a few more characters no longer matters.
  • No more fully-justified text: many print publications now recognize that the “ragged” edge of a left-justified story is easier on the eyes and provides a quicker and more accurate read.
  • No more hyphenated words: software can now adjust for the need of hyphenation.

Thus, the SGAL mandates the use of the serial comma. The reasons for omission are obsolete, and the reasons for inclusion are logical. Now that print is arguably a “dying media”, and most news and other timely stories are delivered via mobile devices, there certainly is room for the serial comma. As long as there is room, why not increase readability? Why not improve clarity?

Sources:
http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/serial-comma.aspx