Serial commas and Maddy

Been working on editing the guest bios for the Dragon*Con program book. I shall probably fume myself into an aneurism on this one, but the growing trend toward omitting the last serial comma is really ticking me off*. I want to bash over the head with a bucket of sporks those idiot English teachers who are telling kids that it’s okay not to include it!

The only style manual/grammar resource where I’ve ever heard such practice being acceptable is the Associated Press one, which omits them due to space constraints. All American authorities: The Chicago Manual of Style, Elements of Style, The Gregg Reference Manual, Oxford University Press, etc. say to use the serial comma because it reduces ambiguity.

So why aren’t people using it?

Well, at least I’m not the only one who finds this tendency aggravating.

Yes, I’m a grammar geek. Ye verily, I have embraced my nerditude.

*I’m less peeved by Brit and Aussie writers who do it because their style manuals waffle on it more, and they’ve got other things to worry about, like whether to put the punctuation on the inside or the outside of the quotation marks.


Writing Stuff

I got a piece of mail from the excellent folks at Cricket that perked me up, although when I first opened it, I was momentarily confused. The communique inside was addressed, “Dear Pussywillow and Ladybug”–which are not names I recall going by–and there wasn’t an explanatory note to aid my comprehension. But after a moment, a few more neurons roused themselves, and I realized “Pussywillow” and “Ladybug” were the names of a couple of the bug characters featured in Cricket. It then dawned on me that they’d printed and sent me an email they’d received from a little girl, Maddy age 11. She loved the April 2006 issue and specifically mentioned my story, “The King of Rabbits and Moon Lake,” as one that she enjoyed

Fan mail from a young reader! I’m tickled that a little girl was so enthusiastic about reading, and specifically about reading something I wrote, that she took the time to send a letter to the editors. Happy writer me.

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28 Responses to Serial commas and Maddy

  1. Too cool that you received fan mail from a youngster. Maybe someday she’ll use serial commas correctely, by your high standards anyway. ;>)

  2. astralfire says:

    I am by no means a grammar expert, but even I have to agree with you on the missing comma. I always hated the part in class were the teacher gave us options or exceptions to a rule.

  3. basletum says:

    Serial commas are pretty….

    And a “WooHoo!” for the fan mail!

  4. radjacee says:

    Amen sister. I feel as though I am grading freshman papers again. I actually hate grammar but have always instinctively done it correctly. As a writing tutor, however, I memorized the basic comma rules. And if I can do that so can everyone else. The comma splices! Ye Gods!

    • billymack says:

      This evening, I started helping out with them.

      I’m surprised at how badly written these things are. It’s clear that some of these washed up losers don’t have a publicist to write this crap for them. I put more thought into my intro on LJ than these morons.

      Bev’s read me some pretty awful ones that list every pathetic thing they’ve ever done.

  5. Aw, that’s so cute! I’m sure you’ll get many more fan letters in your writing career. 🙂

  6. j_hotlanta says:

    Fooey on you and all you serial comma hoardes! I grew up in Alabama where we learned how to rite good and we were taut NEVER to use them serial commas like the Yankee folks do. We’re not alone – I jest read “Eats, shoots, and leaves” and the British agree! Just look at the title of the book to see the ambiguity that you and you serial comma types can cause.

    I have an AND and a ; and I know how to use them.
    I don’t need no more stinkin’ commas!!!!!!!!!

    • Come now, how can you seriously say you’re from Alabama? I’m stranded, quite happily, in the TN Valley and this sounds like a mere “Bama” rant to me, but to each his own.

      • j_hotlanta says:

        Actually, I grew up in the Valley being a proud graduate of Caldwell Elementry and Scottsboro Junior and High Schools. The schools in North Alabama weren’t really all that bad (before the meth came) if you were at the top of the class. Back in the days before “no student left behind”, though, a lot of the kids didn’t get what they needed to make it out of the Valley like I did. Though, not far: I did undergrad at Birmingham-Southern and grad at Vandy so have never really left the south for more than 3 weeks in my life (I live in Atlanta now).

        I have a friend from high school that raised a family in DFW then got remarried and decided to move back for the second family. Raising kids in a smaller exurban town may not be as “enriched” as the big city but certainly offers a different kind of values. Growing up as a river-rat isn’t a bad way to enjoy a childhood.

        • Yes, the Valley is not a bad place to grow up. I spent my childhood through college in the Rocket City, a bit West of Scottsboro, and then went off to Virginia for professional school. It looks from your Southern Ivy League alma mater(s) (I’m weak on classical languages, damn) that our underfunded school system didn’t do too bad by you. I returned to the Valley after 12 years total spent away in Virginia, Puget Sound and then the Atlanta area. Who says you can’t come home again? River rats unite!

  7. alleypat says:

    thank goodness! I wondered where that damned comma went! Things like that just make my neck hair irritated. Whew. Glad to know I’m write once in a while 🙂 Thanks.

  8. skeletal504 says:

    Thank gods, I’m not alone.

  9. redaxe says:

    (seen via friendsfriends)

    I work in an industry (investment banking) where the final serial comma is typically omitted, and it drives me nuts. I do DTP, and frequently have to edit or input lists that ought to include a serial comma, and don’t, and are (to my previously-a-copyeditor eye) ambiguous. And yes, in at least three internal style guides I’ve seen, the comma is explicitly noted as incorrect. (I had a long argument with my boss at my first position in the industry about this; she won, even while acknowledging that the comma does improve clarity, on the twin bases of inertia — that’s how it’s always been done here — and apparent insignificance — it won’t usually matter, anyway. I wish I could speak with her now, with the recent example of a serial comma costing several million dollars.

  10. Anonymous says:


    That’s sweet story about your young fan. Got me to smile immediately. Thanks for sharing it.

    Joel A.

  11. gardenwaltz says:

    first to clarify, you are talking about ‘apples, bananas *,* and potatoes’ right? i was specifically instructed on multiple occasions that the comma before the and does not belong. it’s easy enough to add if someone has a problem, but i always thought it looked silly sitting in front of the ‘and’. the ‘and’ is not a member of the series.

    • Eugie Foster says:

      So your English teacher(s) are among the culprits! Shame on them! Unless you’re writing for a newspaper or similar publication, you should always use the serial comma because it reduces ambiguity.

      For e.g. if you have this sentence:
      “They had cucumber, bologna, peanut butter and jam and cream cheese sandwiches.”

      Without the serial comma, is it “peanut butter and jam” or “peanut butter and jam and cream cheese”?

      The serial comma clarifies it:

      “They had cucumber, bologna, peanut butter and jam, and cream cheese sandwiches.”

      Correct punctuation is important, dammit.

  12. keesa_renee says:

    Yea, verily!! I use the last serial comma, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to leave it off in a story which they have asked me to critique. Yea, verily, yea!

    Awwww, that is so SWEET!! I’m not surprised a young reader liked it enough to contact you. But that is awesome. 🙂

  13. aimeempayne says:

    If it makes you feel any better, I bonded with another Clarionite over our mututal love of the serial comma. I call it the Oxford comma, though–mostly to make myself seem smarter. 😉

  14. FWIW, the Oxford comma is part of The Town Drunk‘s house style.

    Wikipedia has an article about serial commas. It brings up a good point — in some cases, the serial comma can work against clarity:

    Consider “They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.” The presence of the last comma creates the possibility that Betty is a maid, reasonably allowing it to be read either as a list of two people or as a list of three people, context aside.

    Of course, in fiction editing we can always rephrase, but as readers we can never be sure…

  15. lotus_faerie says:

    *celebrates fellow grammar nerds*

  16. db_writer says:

    Hmm. I thought it was now gauche’ and bad form to add the last comma after hers, mine and ours.

    But what do I know?


  17. Ugggh. I am so sick of editing bios. Like Sara said, I feel like I’m at work. Be assured that the sixth graders I teach are learning the correct form of serial commas.

    Cool comment from young Maddie! I’d stick that one in a frame and glance at it from time to time when the Muse fails to descend.

  18. xellegirlx says:

    maybe it’s because I’m from England, but I’ve always been taught to never use a comma before ‘and’ in a list. It wasn’t even an option when I was taught, I was told putting a comma before ‘and’ in a list was wrong!

  19. cuddlywombat says:

    Long live the Oxford comma!

    When I bought my copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, I was thrilled to see that Lynne Truss notes the Oxford comma. At long last, I found someone who addressed the dropping of the serial comma! There are days when I am so thankful that the nuns at the Catholic schools were such grammar nazis. I, too, have become a stickler for correct spelling and grammar (just ask my kids).

    Now, if we could just do something about that nasty habit I see way too often in which people write “try and…” instead of “try to..” And don’t even get me started on the whole “their” situation when it’s obviously supposed to be a singular pronoun. You can see why I include both the Truss book and The Dictionary of Disagreeable English as mandatory reading for my homeschoolers. 🙂

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