In Praise of the Standard Comma
I prefer the standard comma. Please don’t hate me.
When it comes to the interwebs, certain topics seem to generate near-instant polarization of positions, escalation of passion and raging debate. Trump, Obama, religion, reproductive rights, climate change, bike lanes, minimum wage and the beauty of the Honda Element are all obvious examples of this phenomena. When it comes to writing and grammar, the serial comma (or Oxford or Harvard comma) is the champion candidate for this category. Nothing seems to cause people to drop gloves and start sparring than this tiny little punctuation mark. As Lynne Truss has put it, “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
So, given this tendency to turmoil, why would I enter into the fray? One, as the description above suggests, I’m an incurable optimist — what could go wrong? Two, most discussion on the serial comma revolves around logic and ambiguity. My concerns are around cadence and the voice of the writer. Disclosure: this essay was spawned by a comment I made on Jim Dee’s (in my opinion) excellent essay on the role of punctuation in how readers hear your words.
I’ll start with the premise of my argument, expand on my reasoning and deal with the usual critique.
I like writing that sounds good and makes it easy to hear the voice of the writer. As many have noted, as we read, we “hear” the stream of words and we respond to them like we respond to music. Great writers create great music. Not only are their ideas good, they sound good expressing them.
To me, much of the voice of the writer is a function of vocabulary and cadence. While the length, syllables and emphasis of the words chosen defines the core of cadence, punctuation adds more precise control and brings cadence into sharp focus. Vocabulary and punctuation combine to allow the writer to reflect their voice or the voices of their characters within the text. Through vocabulary and punctuation, the writer creates characters as diverse as Boo Radley and Humphrey Appleby. A good writer creates engaging and believable voices and keeps those voices consistent and true to the character (or to themselves as narrators).
So, why my problem with the serial comma? I find the serial comma disturbs the cadence of a series. Rather than keep consistency between elements of the series, the mental pause of the serial comma combines with the pause of the “and”, and things start to slide.
When I see the comma plus the word “and” between the last two items, my listening brain holds for a nanosecond longer and the beat of the items is broken. With the standard comma, the beat of the “and” matches the beats of the in-list commas and the flow is even: “One, two, three, four”. Add the serial comma and you get “One, two, three (and a) four”. One of these things is no longer like the others.
As with most things that irritate me more than they rationally should (it’s a comma, not world peace), I try to analyze underlying reasons why this bothers me. Two things come to mind. One, I am a typography geek. Ever since I learned to set cold type by hand at the end of the sixties, I have been fascinated by letterforms and the space between them. Typesetters control this space by inserting slivers of metal between the letters and lines. Space (and voice) is physical and tactile. Two, I am a basement musician (read: not too talented). To me, punctuation is like the timing marks of music notation. And I read that last comma as an extra rest. OK, there is a third reason, but who wants to talk about their OCD tendencies.
At this point serial comma fans are likely at the “who gives a crap about your life history” stage and want to talk about how the serial comma eliminates logical ambiguity. Good point, but shouldn’t a good writer be able to write their way out of the possibility that their parents are Mother Theresa and the Pope? While the serial comma may lay a somewhat mathematical certainty on sentence structure, I find the cadence of reading a series is usually a more natural clue of what connects with what. If you can’t write your way out of a logical ambiguity, then by all means turn to the extra comma to clarify. But don’t forget, the serial comma can introduce an ambiguity of its own.
Which leads me to the conclusion that many have made. The most important thing is to know how the rules work, the impact of applying those rules and what happens when you don’t. When it comes to words, know the tools in your toolbox. Know what they do. Know when (and when not) to use them.
Of course, all the punctuation in the world doesn’t always help with a crazy mongrel language like English. As Susan Rooks points out, interpretation is a precarious thing, but it is something you can guide your reader through through the words and punctuation you choose. Your writing and the reader deserve no less.
And the beat goes on.
Postscript and other notes
James Britton writes reflections on his experiences in an attempt to become a better writer, a deeper thinker and to make sense of life. He is lucky enough to have a very satisfying day job, so there is no newsletter to sign up for. That said, he welcomes thoughtful comment, engaging private notes or a sign that what he writes may be interesting to someone (a hand clap…the odd follow).