Let’s get serious about the serial comma.

Posted: January 19th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Grammar, Punctuation, and Usage, Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts | 1 Comment »

A tiny comma can be worth a lot, so let’s talk seriously about the serial comma.

What is the serial comma?

The serial comma is the comma before “and” in a series of words. Here is a serial comma in living color:

I like apples, bananas, and cherries.

What’s the rule on serial commas?

In the civilian world, the use of the serial comma is a style choice. Generally, the civilian American approach does not use the serial comma, while the British approach uses it.

Although the grammar police differ on this issue, most require the serial comma for technical writing. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which rules in the civilian world, does not require the serial comma. But The Chicago Manual of Style, the U.S. Government Printing Office and Bryan Garner all endorse the serial comma.

What’s a poor, confused lawyer to do?

You, my friend, are not in the civilian world. The serial comma is always more precise. Because precision is  essential in legal writing, you should always use the serial comma.  You’ll never offend anyone by using it and, in the legal world, a single comma can be worth a million dollars.  Click here to see a case where a comma was worth a million dollars (although the comma at issue was not of the serial variety): http://n.pr/milliondollarcomma

In transactional drafting, the serial comma is a must. Although the serial comma may not be as essential in our prose writing, it’s easier to be consistent and use the serial comma in all legal writing.

But, but, but (for those of you who dream of other things) …

But if you are writing the great American novel, be aware that the serial comma compromises the pacing of a sentence. Consider the famous line by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

The stately and majestic pacing of this line is lost once we add a serial comma:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep.

A widely circulated story says that Frost’s publisher made the unforgivable mistake of inserting that serial comma when the poem was first published—and that Frost made the publisher reprint the book to remove the offending comma.  So if you expect to be the next poet laureate of your nation or if you are writing the next great American poem or novel, the choice is yours.

The Bottom Line?

In legal writing, use the serial comma. The money you save may be your client’s!

The Final, Final Word

And if you don’t believe me, trust Stephen Colbert. Here is his ringing endorsement of the serial comma: http://bit.ly/AAlUEx  (at 4:25) What more do you need?



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One Comment on “Let’s get serious about the serial comma.”

  1. 1 Michael said at 6:12 pm on December 1st, 2013:

    Depending on your allegiances, some prefer to call this the ‘Oxford comma’ or ‘Harvard comma’. It can certainly be a useful device.

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