I’d planned to post something else today, but then a problematical use (or avoidance) of the list comma came streaking across my desk so I changed gears.
Some time back — in one of the earliest posts on this blog — I discussed the list or “Oxford” comma. This issue, whether or not to use a comma before the “and” in a list of items, gets a lot of debate, some of it heated. As with most issues, I don’t treat it as a matter of absolutes: in just about all cases that final comma is good practice (and I recommend it), but some writers are constrained by style guides telling them not to use it. Even if you’re in the habit of using it all the time, every once in awhile you’re going to run into a situation where using it makes the sentence look awkward, and omitting it is the better choice.
Here’s the stumble in question. Take a look at this screen shot from a recent New York Times piece, with a particular sentence highlighted:
The story definitely did not mean to imply that Cleveland, New York, (population 750) has been in the news for police violence caught on video.
But this is what happens when a house style leans strongly in one direction and better alternatives are overlooked.
In New York Times style, the serial comma is discouraged. To be sure, it’s not 100% forbidden, but they seldom use it. They’ve even gone on record with one of the weirdest, deflecting explanations for the preference that I’ve ever heard (that twisted explanation of the ‘double and’ in the third paragraph of the comma answer). But, if that’s their style, they’re allowed to have it.
They should remember, though, that their style allows for exceptions for clarity by including the comma, shifting to semicolons, or rewriting. There are at least three alternatives for punctuating or modifying that sentence, two of which are better than what’s shown above. Simply adding the list comma doesn’t help much:
Cleveland, New York, and North Charleston, S.C.
It’s still possible to read “Cleveland, New York” as one place name.
You could use semicolons in one of their less-used (but still proper) roles: separating list items with internal commas:
Cleveland; New York; and North Charleston, S.C.
Better. In a hurry, that’s an adequate solution. But there’s still something fishy here. Maybe after looking at this sentence over and over you’re starting to see another problem with it: the parallelism is weak. The list mixes plain cities (no state) with a city that includes a state. I know: newspapers do this all the time, and assume that their readers inherently know many important places and drop the state name (and they do). Let’s set that aside and just fix the parallelism. You could simply drop “S.C.” or you could use some extra characters to clarify explicitly:
Cleveland, Ohio; New York, N.Y.; and North Charleston, S.C.
Much better: there is no ambiguity left. And before anyone writes in about inconsistent state abbreviations (Ohio, but N.Y. and S.C.): that’s a quirk of AP style. I haven’t been able to track down the Times’ specific state abbreviation style, if they have one, but everything indicates that they follow AP on this point. Another AP style quirk, if followed by the times, might make the original sentence even weirder: by AP rules “Cleveland” should appear without a state in date lines, as should “New York City”– spelled out. But AP gives no specific guidance on how to show them within a story, so we won’t make any assumptions.
I know that most of the people who read this blog care about these little issues, but someone who finds this page at random might ask “so what, who cares? it’s clear from the context what was meant.” They might be right. But that’s not the point. Two other issues should always be addressed in good writing: clarity without context and reader experience.
Today’s clear context might be murky or lost altogether in 100 years. Or 50. Or even 5. The reader knows what these places mean in the context of that sentence today. But will they tomorrow? If I wrote “it’s just like Homs and Hama” how many of you will remember those two cities, which were frequently in the news only two or three years ago?
As far as the reader experience goes, in a piece of writing like this you never want to make the reader stumble, stop, and reread a passage. It’s irritating, not just for editors and writers and careful readers, but for everyone. If they stumble too often, they won’t finish the story, or the page, or that issue of the paper. You’ll lose them, even if the reason they turned away is unconscious to them.
Getting it right, every time, needs to be your goal. You’ll never get there of course, but the effort is important. Always choose clarity, even when it violates your house rules. When in doubt, despite your style guide discouraging it, add whatever punctuation you need.
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Note: I cited a New York Times style explanation from 2007 because it gave a detailed explanation, but it hasn’t changed as of earlier this year.