Sometimes I manage to miss things, we all do. For that reason, I think there’s no harm in cheating for this post and rehashing old news, by which I mean giving a few words to the serial, or Oxford, comma. I always try to avoid reinventing the wheel, so I’ll also refer you below to Adam Davis at BuzzFeed for an amusing blog on the subject.
Very briefly, you may be wondering: what is this thing called the serial comma? As I mentioned in my first post, it’s the (now optional) comma before the final “and” in a list. According to Oxford Dictionaries, it became known as the Oxford comma because of its traditional use by Oxford University Press.
In the last few years, many writers have eschewed the use of this comma, and I understand why. If you’re presenting a simple list with only a few items, the last comma isn’t vital to the meaning of the sentence. So, for many writers, particularly journalists, this final comma can feel clunky and appear unsightly. Hence, being freed of the serial comma imperative was a liberating gift from the grammar gods … and perhaps not making that one extra keystroke is keeping the carpal tunnel syndrome at bay. All around, making this comma optional is an understandable step in the evolution of punctuation.
Before we throw the Adios-You-Unsightly-Leftover-Comma Party, hold your horses. The above is all well and good in most cases, but not in all cases. This is where Adam Davis comes in handy. See his The Oxford Comma Is Extremely Important And Everyone Should Be Using It for examples—with visual aids—of why it’s still (sometimes) needed.
I admit, for a while, I was caught up in the Lose-The-Old-Comma Craze. It felt edgy and daring. After all, the last “and” is good enough to show the reader that the comma is sort of implied, right? Alas, this blissful freedom was only short-lived.
As an editor, I usually stick to the old ways on this one. I believe a piece of writing ought to be punctuated consistently, and I have yet to edit a book that can do entirely without the serial comma. This is a compliment to the authors I’ve worked with, by the way. It means that their ideas, their storytelling, their subjects are not one-dimensional, and that their work demands the nuance and precision that the serial comma can bring.