Lists, Journalists, and the Comma

What is it about the comma that causes so much difficulty, especially to the non-professional writer?

Even among those who are expert with words, the need for commas in specific instances is sometimes a point of argument. Maybe you’ve come across the story of James Thurber and his comma disputes with Harold Ross, Thurber’s editor at the New Yorker. You’ve got to have respect for a man willing to carry on over the punctuation of “red, white, and blue” — although Thurber was such a joker that I wonder if the entire affair wasn’t just a long-running gag.

But why should this small punctuation mark cause as much trouble as it does, and to so many?

I suspect one of the reasons the comma causes strife is that it’s a single mark pressed into service for a wide variety of uses. No grammar guide worth anything lists fewer than five distinct uses; I’ve seen some list up to 13, depending on how they’re subdivided. In a purely logical language, we might have a character for each use. This is one time when I’m glad our language isn’t purely logical.

I want to restrict the discussion of the comma in this post to a single use: the list comma. It’s one of the most common, always in the top five in the guides I’m familiar with. You might also see this referred to as the series comma, or serial comma, or something along those lines.

The basic rule runs like this:

  • When three or more items are used in a list, separate each item with a comma.  For example: The storm dropped rain, sleet, and hail across six states. Or, with more complexity: Chabon’s work shows an understanding of history, a grasp of complicated issues, and a dark sense of humor.

I’ve used only three items in each example, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be four, or five, or ten, except that long lists are likely to become confusing to the reader. Give your reader a chance to take a mental breath now and then, or they’ll forget where the sentence started, let alone where it’s going.

The rule I’ve given above, and my explanation, will immediately raise hackles with some. Why? Because it appears that students are increasingly being taught that they should always drop the comma before the word “and.” I’d estimate that no fewer than 25% of the students I see every semester have been so indoctrinated. That’s probably a reasonable indicator for the population at large.

Sometimes students are insistent about this. I try to convince them gently. “What you’ve been taught is the journalistic comma, not the list comma.” What exactly is the distinction?

The list comma is simple, as shown above. The journalistic comma, on the other hand, is the comma that isn’t there. Which is a funny way to talk about punctuation, but it wouldn’t be the first non-corporeal concept to earn a label. Think of emptiness, the zero, and “compassionate conservatism.”

The journalistic comma, used in print by long-standing tradition and codified in AP style, states (and they’re pretty explicit about this) that the comma before an “and” is always dropped. It’s been offered that the reason is that it saves ink. I don’t know if I believe that newspapers operate on budgets quite so thin, but maybe when you’re printing many thousands of copies, the deletion of a few commas can save a little cash.

AP style doesn’t sway me in this case. I submit, with humility, that if you browse any newspaper (or a magazine using AP style) it won’t take long to find an instance where the use of the journalistic comma opens up the possibility for confusion. Is it guaranteed to cause ambiguity? No. But there’s a chance, and in some cases it’s almost certain.

When it comes to commas, I prefer other authorities over AP. One that I haven’t mentioned on this blog before (but which I’ll likely refer to frequently) is Diana Hacker, who writes about the list comma: “…most experts advise using the comma because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading” (Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference, 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.).

I’m not a journalist. If you are, and your publication uses AP style, the choice has been made for you. For everyone else in the world, I strongly recommend that you embrace the list comma, and that you make sure it appears between every next-to-last list item and that final “and.” Get in the habit of always using it, to avoid trouble. The chance of causing confusion is too great. Let’s get a few examples out here:

  • He was found guilty of all the corruption charges, money-laundering and embezzlement. Without the comma, do we mean that he was found guilty of two things, money-laundering and embezzlement, both referred to as corruption charges? Or should there be a comma, to show that we’re talking about three distinct types of charge?
  • Jill blamed her best friend, Annabelle and Violet for all the embarrassment.  In this case, do we mean that Annabelle is the best friend, and she and Violet were blamed? Or is there an unnamed best friend, as well as Annabelle and Violet, thus splitting the blame among three people?

Even my second example, near the top of this post, could be ambiguous if the final comma were omitted: instead of crediting him with three traits, might I have meant that Chabon, because of his understanding of history, shows a grasp of complicated issues and a dark sense of humor? I could have. But I didn’t. Thank you, list comma.

A careful reader will note that for each of my ambiguous examples there are alternative formulations so that a single comma isn’t an issue. Perhaps a semi-colon could be used; or the whole sentence could be thrown out and rewritten. Of course. Isn’t that true for any troublesome sentence? But sometimes rewriting defeats the purpose, and a simple solution is better.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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