While I admire their brio, I must respectfully disagree with these two lovely bloggers. The serial comma (also referred to as the Oxford comma, the Harvard Comma, the pretentious comma, the party-pooping comma, the humorless comma, the comma with the chip on its shoulder, the comma that won’t put out, the comma that would never join a Bunny Hop, the monastic comma and the comma that won’t sing “Comma Chameleon”) takes the fun out of a lengthy list. It is utterly redundant. It insults the readers’ intelligence. Most importantly, in nearly every circumstance, it comes across as the most lifeless and stiffest puncutation mark ever devised.
Consider the fun of a sentence like:
The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter and jelly.
Now did the gigolo order bananas and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Did the gigolo order a bananas served with a side of peanut butter and jelly? Or did he order three separate items? It’s the kind of amiguity that makes life (and the sentence) quite interesting. Do people order bananas in an unusual manner? That’s fun!
Of course, when we add the Oxford comma, the sentence becomes disappointingly clear:
The gigolo ordered bananas, peanut butter, and jelly.
Now granted, as pointed out by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, there are some instances in which being explicit is necessary. The sentence, “On his journey, he encountered George Bush, a genius and cunnilingus expert,” is of course quite problematic. But given that the English language is already a troubling bundle of inconsistencies, why prohibit its use in toto? Why not keep the reader guessing? Can not a reader figure out that George Bush is entirely discrete from the other two parties!
While it is true that Strunk & White endorse the serial comma (under Section II, Rule 2), I contend that this particular puncutation rule does not apply, because their hearts are not completely into it. They write:
This is also the usage of the Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.
And while I’m normally a big Elements of Style booster, let us consider that even the most virtuous and adorable authorities are capable of slip-ups. The Government Printing Office, folks! Was ever a more lifeless entity ever cited by Strunk & White?
Let us also consider that the hard-core serial comma boosters are found most frequently in law firms and investment banking firms. And what business do such lifeless husks have dictating the English language? What we have here is a clear war on fun and ambiguity.
Now a person by the name of Miss Grammar concludes, “Except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma,” and remains puzzled by the fact that a substantial chunk of writers and English mavens still rebel against this. Consider that Vassar has issued a supplement to Strunk & White. AP Style is against the serial comma. So perhaps this isn’t a case of total prohibition or complete sanction, but rather a situation in which, like any helpful tool, you can use the tool or not use it.
But it’s certainly reassuring to know that, on this grammatical point, the earth will continue to rumble.
© 2006, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.