WHY SERIAL COMMAS ARE A GOOD THING.

I’ve mentioned my fondness for the serial comma before (and quoted a wonderful example of the unfortunate results of omitting it: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”), but I ran across a sentence in the NY Times Circuits section yesterday (in the story “Aiming for Hit Games, Films Come Up Short,” by Seth Schiesel) that caused me real confusion: “On consoles, that means titans like Final Fantasy, Gran Turismo, Mario and Zelda, and relative newcomers like Grand Theft Auto and Halo.” Because of the lack of a serial comma, it looks as if there were a game called “Mario and Zelda,” and I initially assumed such was the case. But my obsessive editorial brain forced me to google it, and I discovered they were two separate games. This would have been clear if a comma had been placed after “Mario,” as the gods of grammar intended.

Comments

  1. Hear, hear.
    Why oh why did so many style and grammar guides turn against the serial comma, which never hurts and often helps, just as you have shown?

  2. I second that Hallelujah! I always tell my ESL students to put in serial commas. Now I just have to hope that if they go on to actually taking classes in the US they don’t get one of the misguided professors with an irrational hatred of pre-”and” commas.

  3. dungbeattle says:

    I’m so pleased that the GREAT N.Y. Times is keeping our thoughts straight, with best American Harvard ‘types’ as our Guide to elucidate the written word and thought. You should send them a copy of THE book on Punctuation, so that can Pepper, and then Salt their column inches.

  4. Those unclear as to the subject of dungbeattle’s condimentary allusion should read this LH entry.

  5. William says:

    Written by a dutchman perhaps? In dutch and, as far as I remember, german, the last comma is always omitted because the word en/und implies a pauze.
    That’s the theory, anyway…
    And shame on you for not having heard of Zelda, the War and Peace of the gaming industry!

  6. Hear, hear, and hear!

  7. Isn’t this one of the British/American difference. Like the difference about putting periods inside parentheses (like this.) Or the prohibition against separation an ungainly noun phrase from the verb, when sometimes it really helps.

  8. Not a British vs American issue, but one of house style; the serial comma is also called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma because those authorities endorse it. I don’t much like it except where it’s necessary to make the sense clear, as with the classic (most likely apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”. In the example about console games, I’d have dealt with it by ditching the alphabetical listing and recasting it as “On consoles, that means titans like Mario, Zelda, Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy, and relative newcomers like Halo and Grand Theft Auto” on the grounds that “Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy” is unlikely to be read as a single game title.

  9. Like Dana, I also instruct my students in the use of serial commas.

  10. Ivan Ilych would argue that the problem is with the idea that there has to be a rule. Standardizing spelling is a good thing, but I wouldn’t go a lot further.
    I’ve been screwing around with periods inside and outside parentheses for several decades. I can’t even remember who has which rule. I say outside, definitely, but it’s hard to take the question very seriously.
    I have corresponded with a Cambridge don who used double quotation marks for book titles: “Don Quixote”. I was shocked! But why not?

  11. Charles says:

    One good reason for using quotes rather than italics would be readability for people with less-than-perfect vision, as italics can be harder to read than standard text.

  12. Jeremiah says:

    In all of my 18 odd years of education here in Australia, I have never once had a teacher or professor suggest using the serial comma. While its benefits are clear to me, I cannot bring myself to use it nor can I help but stumble over it in my mind whenever I see it in print. I would re-engineer a sentence or leave out an example to avoid using it. Not rational I know, but somewhere deep in my subconcious it’s filed as wrong, right next to not capitalising names and not using full stops.

  13. Being British, my ‘default’ position is *not* to use the comma after the last item before ‘and’ in a list. Usually, like Jeremiah, it would just feel ‘wrong’. (Though sometimes I’ll put it in if using it makes the sense clearer.) But after reading the Nelson Mandela example, I just might have to revise my position on this…

  14. Non-use of the final comma is to some extent a British trait, but as using the comma never hurts, and omitting it sometimes produces ambiguity or oddness, there is no point in havering over whether to use it or not in this case or that. Consistent use of the final comma is harmless and should offend no sensibility.
    As long as there are publishers who adhere to arbitary styles instead of sensible logical styles, we’ll have absurdities, like Jared Diamond’s book being published as both _Guns, Germs and Steel_ and _Guns, Germs, and Steel_.

  15. I suppose for those very familiar with video games, there’s no confusion possible. Then again, newspapers probably shouldn’t be assuming much about their audience’s familiarity with X topic.

  16. I like the serial comma, a lot. But most of all I would have liked a clear rule about it one way or the other when I was a child.
    At the age of twelve, I once burst into tears because someone told me that the serial comma was wrong right after I had unambiguously been told that leaving out the serial comma was wrong.

  17. I’m a fan of the serial comma, but it’s wrong to say that it never leads to ambiguities of its own. “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God” with a serial comma is just as ambiguous as “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” without.

  18. user19234 says:

    Adding the serial comma to the Mandela example would make it clear that he’s not a dildo collector, but it could still be read to mean that he’s an 800-year-old demigod, and that the highlights of the tour include encounters with only two people: Mandela — who is an 800-year-old demigod — and a dildo collector.

  19. You mean Mandela isn’t an 800-year-old demigod? I’ve been misled!

  20. I may be mixing up cause and effect, but I think the AP Style Book is to blame for the deletion of the final comma in a series. I’ve had heated arguments about the issue with co-workers in the PR firm that employs me.

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