Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Serial Comma

Ah, the serial commanothing gets a group of editors, copy editors and writers more riled up than a good ol' "discussion" on whether or not to use it. (This happened recently at work.)

You've got your pro serial-comma camp, and you've got your anti-serial-comma camp; here's an impassioned pro argument.

Interesting to note that David Foster Wallace, who was on the editorial board of the Oxford English Dictionary, was firmly pro serial comma. Here's a quote from the editor who worked with him on his Roger Federer article for the New York Times:

"He is the only writer ever to convince (or even try to convince) the famously stubborn Times copy desk that we should temporarily ignore the paper's famous serial-comma rule—the paper doesn't use them; this really drove David nuts. His argument was that '10 percent of the cases become howlers without it' and offered the following example: 'The elephant fell on the Snodgrass twins, Rodney and Pete.' Remove the comma and only two people are crushed by the elephant, whereas the writer might have intended the total to be four. Why complicate comprehension for the sake of a rule? When I told him I thought we were stuck—the institution is bigger than the individual, even this individual—he said he was willing to take up the matter with the copy tsar himself and added, 'Just say the author's an eccentric prima donna.' Then he laughed."


Kara said...

Ah, such the debate. :-)

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

The estimable David Foster Wallace goes up about 12 notches in my estimation. Serial Comma Commando that I am, at