You may not know it, but punctuation kills. At least according to one of my favorite T-shirts.
The front reads: “Punctuation Kills.” The back reads:
“Let’s eat Grandpa.”
“Let’s eat, Grandpa.”
The eagle-eyed will note the only difference between the two sentences above is a strategically placed comma. As both a grandpa and a grammarian, the shirt caught my interest and fanned the flames of my love of commas.
Around our office, the mere mention of commas inevitably leads to the Great Serial Comma Debate. A serial comma, or Oxford comma, is used in The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and other non-journalistic writing (as well as this sentence). It is inserted before the last of a series of three or more items, before the words “and,” “or,” and “nor.”
I am a serial comma man.
My journalistic colleagues, who worship at the The Associated Press Style Guidealtar, consider this heresy. Their argument stretches back to the days of hand-setting type for newspapers. Why waste time, lead, ink, and paper with an unnecessary comma? They also contend that when our old friends “and,” “or,” and “nor” arrive, the end of a series can’t be far behind. So why add a redundant comma?
Personally, I’ve never met a comma I didn’t like, serial or otherwise. I concur with those who feel that the serial comma brings a certain clarity and cadence to a sentence. It also brings order to the world of punctuation. Aren’t semicolons always included before the last item in a series? Why treat the comma as a second-class citizen?
Regardless of where you come down on the Great Serial Comma Debate, the thing to remember is this: when writing for a media audience (news releases), use AP style. This signals to journalists that you speak their language.
In non-journalistic writing, consistency is the key. Pick a side on the comma skirmish, and stick to it.
So, to my AP friends (you know who you are): my apologies for the comma-cluttered mess above. To those who share my love of commas: Let’s eat, friends!