Thursday, February 09, 2006

Serial comma killers

Lynne Truss has her moments of cuteness, but I have always maintained that if the title of her punctuation bible omits a necessary comma, I'm not going to trust her expertise any further than I can hurl a semicolon.

No, I haven't read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but I did accidentally place an order for this remarkably ugly desktop calendar. I didn't send it back because the fault was mine and not the online bookseller's. But rather than keeping the thing on my desk I have banished it to the closet where I store books and papers and things. Every few days I tear off two or three pages and grin at Lynne's mini-rants. But it continues to bug me that there's a comma missing from the book's title, so I've just taken my red pen and made things right. At least for today.

Yes, I am a stickler for the serial comma. You should be, too. And stop scratching your heads; you know very well what serial commas are, although you may not have known until now what they are called. There's a good page about serial commas over at Get it Write:

One of the questions we are asked frequently is whether a comma should go before the conjunction "and" in a series of three or more items. The answer is yes. Although grammar gurus abandoned that comma rule for a while in the twentieth century, we have since realized that using the serial comma (as it is called) is a good idea for two reasons:

First, it prevents misreading. Consider this sentence, for example:

The menu for the class picnic will feature green beans, stewed apples, macaroni and cheese and okra and tomatoes.

Without the serial comma, the series items are difficult to see. Here is the same sentence with the serial comma added:

The menu for the class picnic will feature green beans, stewed apples, macaroni and cheese, and okra and tomatoes.

With the serial comma, the reader can tell easily that the class ate four different dishes, not five or six, as may have been construed without that last comma.

Yeah. That's why Eats, Shoots & Leaves should be Eats, Shoots, & Leaves. And no, the serial comma is not a fussy detail.

The Lawyer’s Book of Rules for Effective Legal Writing, by Thomas R. Haggard, says "The serial comma is essential in legal writing because it promotes clarity" (17). Consider this sentence:

Mrs. Jones left all her money to her three children: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Without the serial comma, the sentence does not clearly indicate that the three children are to be given equal shares of the inheritance. Quite possibly (especially if Huey were a jerk), Huey would get half the money, and Dewey and Louie would have to split the other half.

Right. Because when we connect two words with "and," they often lose their individual identities. For instance, if I ask you how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I could be requesting your recipe for peanut butter sandwiches and also jelly sandwiches. But that's not what you'll assume, is it? Sometimes "and" likes to make trouble. That's why we need serial commas.

My fellow serial comma fans may notice the absence of our little darlings in my new book. Trust me: I did include commas in all the appropriate places. Unfortunately, a conscientious copyeditor who was trained to follow my publisher's house style ripped them out and left them to wither and die on the cutting room floor. I could do nothing to prevent the senseless tragedy.

I knew when I submitted that manuscript what would happen to those defenseless little serial commas, but I created them anyway, certain that a brief life would be better than no life at all. I did my best for them, tenderly placing each one where it could do honest, meaningful work during its short existence.

I just wish I could have done more.

32 comments:

Mirtika said...

Over the last couple of years, I have rediscovered the joy of the "last serial comma."

It does promote clarity, which is why I've tried to break former training (in H.S. and college) in skipping that last comma to acquire a BETTER habit. :)

I enjoyed this rant. Now, get a proper black marker and fill in those ugly calendar pages. Make it clear, tight, and right. :)

Mir

Marianne McA said...

I've a vague feeling I read a piece, possibly by Bill Bryson, talking about the difference between British and American usage in this case. I think we wouldn't normally use a comma there - I certainly wouldn't, but that's no guarantee of anything.

ValMarie said...

The grammatical error is the point of her title. I'm not sure if you knew that, but it still bugs you anyway.

The title is based on a grammatical error in a dictionary concerning the eating habits of pandas (supposed to be eats shoots and leaves, but they put a comma after eats)--that's why it looks the way it does. I believe she explains the joke right up front in the intro and I know I've read it around before, but I can't seem to find it now.

Once again, you may have been being sarcastic and I missed out. But the screwed-up punctuation was a deliberate decision on her part to illustrate a point not a grammatical error.

Mirtika said...

I knew that the screwed up comma work (in terms of a comma between EATS and SHOOTS) was intentional. That's the wit of the title.

I am not sure that the serial comma issue is intentional, though.

Mir

1 L Loyd said...

I guess I was taught old school. My teachers wanted that last comma, so there would be no doubt. =D

Tracy Montoya said...

Brenda, I LOVE YOU! I thought I was the only person in the world who was being slowly driven mad by the tragic lack of serial commas in today's world. I revamped our style guide at work to include it, and it's one question of editorial style that I've refused to budge on. Nice rant!

Hornblower said...

Yes, valmarie & mirtika are right - the title is part of a joke about how punctuation changes the punchline. There isn't supposed to be a comma there at all. Lynne Truss is funny. I really liked her new book on manners too....

Brenda Coulter said...

Yes, the title refers to a joke. But there is more to this, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. (Please excuse me. I really could not stop myself.)

A panda's diet consists of bamboo shoots and leaves. You know this, of course, my good Horatio; I am merely explaining to those who might not. The joke is that some functionally illiterate individual placed a comma after "eats", changing the meaning of the sentence and inciting an otherwise mild-mannered panda to violence. But if one meant to convey that a panda will eat, and then shoot, and then leave, the serial comma becomes necessary.

Your point, however, is well taken. Maybe the title wasn't meant to tell us anything about pandas. Perhaps it was meant only to quote the silly, ungrammatical sign. But if that were the case, then we would see serial commas aplenty in the book--and we do not. (At least, I don't see them in my little calendar that features a daily quote from the book.)

But I'll agree with you that the lady is very funny. I do plan to read the book, and her second one, as well. Even if she is a serial comma killer.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, sorry. Blogger appears to be dropping the comments into my mailbox out of order today. I wasn't ignoring you, Valmarie; I just didn't see you up there.

So those of you who have the book, please speak up: Does the author or does she not endorse the serial comma? From what I can tell, she eschews them.

Katie Hart said...

I've never read the book, but I love serial commas. That's the one thing that drives me nuts about "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The title simply begs for another comma!

Brenda Coulter said...

Yeah, Katie, it's beginning to look like a Brit thing. They are very dear people, but they're wrong about so many things. Yorkshire Pudding, for instance, and cricket instead of baseball. And they see "colours" and taste "flavours."

Now I'd better duck and run before Neal comes along. ;-)

Debra Hamel said...

The joke is that some functionally illiterate individual placed a comma after "eats", changing the meaning of the sentence and inciting an otherwise mild-mannered panda to violence. But if one meant to convey that a panda will eat, and then shoot, and then leave, the serial comma becomes necessary.

But this wouldn't work. The text of the original would have read something like, "A panda eats shoots and leaves." A comman is inserted after "eats" by accident, not because one wanted to convey the new meaning, with "shoots" and "leaves" now understood as verbs. It's a simple typographical error. It would not make sense at all to insert a comma also after "shoots" and thus make the punctuation of the sentence with its new, unintentional meaning more clear. And in fact Truss would have rightly been condemned had she inserted the serial comma.

As to whether she includes the serial comma elsewhere in the book, I don't remember. I am myself a proponent of them.

Brenda Coulter said...

As I recall, Debra, it was a sign in a zoo: "Panda. Eats, shoots and leaves." Something like that. Not a complete sentence. So do you see, now, what I mean?

Thank you for supporting serial commas. They need all the friends they can get.

Debra Hamel said...

I don't think it matters if the original is a complete sentence or not. The point is that the original had *no* commas and the comma was inserted after "eats" by mistake, not because whoever inserted it wanted to change the purport of the comment. Or that's my assumption, at least. Having an additional comma after "shoots" would mean that a second comma had been inserted in error as well.

Marianne McA said...

Here's a quote - apparently it's called the Oxford comma here because the Oxford University Press used it as standard.

'The Oxford Comma - standard US English usage is to put a comma before the and in lists of items, e.g. red, white, and blue; standard British English usage, however, is to leave it out, e.g: red, white and blue. More subtly "etc." (et cetera, i.e. and so on) should have a comma before it in US English; it shouldn't in British English.'

My husband makes fantastic Yorkshire Pudding...

Shelbi said...

I kinda switch between using the serial comma and not. I'm wildly inconsistent with my commas, sometimes continuing a run-on sentence for days using 'and' between every item on my list.

Of course, I try to replicate my speech patterns online, and I talk like a freak sometimes, too.

I've read in numerous writing books that you should know the rules and feel free to break them if you know why you're breaking them.

I usually do, so I don't feel too guilty.

You bust me up with your serial commas, though, Brenda.

Now I'm gonna leave the computer, re-boot the laundry, and vacuum my living room [which isn't what I want to be doing at all, but I have some friends coming over, and the house is a mess!]

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I'm dizzy from this conversation...but I will remember to use serial commas. I will never forget again!

Brenda Coulter said...

I will rememer to use serial commas. I will never forget again!

Thank you. I guess my work here is done.

Ken said...

From Hodges' Harbrace College Handbook, 1984 printing, section 12c, page 136:

"The comma before the conjunction may be omitted in the series a, b, and c if there is no danger of misreading".

On the other hand, William A. Sabin appears to prefer the Oxford comma, but there are exceptions. He notes that when all items are connected by conjunctions including a series of two such as represented by a and b, as well as a and b and c, commas may be omitted. Sabin must not have been a lawyer ;-).

I guess when giants express their varying 'opinions', the rest of us suffer.

Brenda Coulter said...

Sabin must not have been a lawyer.

Clearly. I have never accused an attorney of speaking English, but darn it, at least they know how to punctuate!

;-)

Neal said...

Hi Brenda

In a bit of a hurry this morning, so I haven't read all the comments, but just a quick follow-up to Marianne, who thought she remembered Bill Bryson saying it was a Brit thing. As a Brit, I can assure you that it is a US-UK thing. As a technial author, who is concerned with the need to remove any ambiguity for the boring stuff he has to write, and who has to attempt to write in US English, I can assure you that I've learned to love the serial comma, and now always use it myself. I still write colour (unless I'm at work), I still think that "different than" sounds odd, but I do think that last comma is essential for clarity.

Brenda Coulter said...

I can assure you that I've learned to love the serial comma, and now always use it myself.

Well, that gives me another thing to admire about you, then. ;-)

As for "different than," it's wrong. "Different from" is correct on both sides of the pond.

Neal said...

As for "different than," it's wrong. "Different from" is correct on both sides of the pond.

How interesting. I'd always understood that "different than" was accepted in the US. What good news, I can carry on using "different from" with my head held high!

(Hadn't noticed your earlier comment about yorkshire puds and cricket when I wrote my first comment ... I have now, heh heh heh :-)

Anonymous said...

Three things...

1. "...eats shoots and leaves." - This is how the sentence was supposed to be written regardless whether it was a full sentence or not. Therefore, there is no need for an Oxford comma either way. It's just a comma-typo that magically appeared.
2. Her book does use them, and has a chapter on why we use them. Your calendar must be from America and I'm sure the editors/writers had a ball taking them out just to spite her.
3. The Americans removed the Oxford/Harvard/series/serial comma back in the old days because it saved ink during the printing process. Sounds crazy I know. However, if you think of all the articles that would have several serial commas, multiply that by each article, multiplied by each paper, every day, and possibly a morning and afternoon copy...This all adds up. It’s ingenious in terms of innovative ways to "save on overhead", but disgusting when it comes to taking liberties with the English language.

I use it all the time. No question.

Katrina Stonoff said...

AP Style, the most common usage system for newspapers (and about half the book publishers in the U.S.) specifically says not to use a serial comma.

In printing, you save space whenever possible (conserving ink, paper and the typesetter's time). It all adds up.

However, I checked my latest AP Stylebook (2005), and it says skip the comma in a "simple" list. Hence your "macaroni and cheese" example would justify a comma even in AP Style.

Brenda Coulter said...

Katrina, my publisher makes no such exception, so I endeavor to keep all of my lists "simple."

Nancy Tuten said...

Hi, Katrina. I'm one of the authors of the Get It Write tip that is quoted above, and I have to take exception to your remark that the AP Style Book is used by "half of the book publishers in the U.S." I cannot find a single style book that does NOT advocate the use of the serial comma except for AP, and I don't know of any publisher outside of journalism who uses the AP. AP also advocates misuse of the colon. Shame on them for sacrificing clarity for the almighty dollar (saving space and ink!). Thanks for quoting us, Brenda! Nancy

Brenda Coulter said...

You're very welcome, Nancy. I thought you had a great page over there, so I just had to link.

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Martha said...

Right on, Brenda! Glad to see so many kindred spirits here.

My take on the serial comma is in a KPBS podcast here:

http://www.kpbs.org/radio/a_way_with_words;id=8702

Keep up the good work!

Brenda Coulter said...

Warmest thanks, Martha. It is gratifying to see so many people placing the proper importance on serial commas.

Natural5 said...

Just wanted to clear up for everyone that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a children's book about punctuation. The title is purposely mispunctuated as an example of why we need to use commas correctly -- if it's punctuated this way...we see a picture of a panda with a smoking gun leaving. It then proceeds to explain the correct way to use commas through this & other examples. There is a list of rules in the back. In fact, the full title is Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! Lynn Truss has another similar book called, The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can't Manage without Apostrophes! and another called Twenty-Odd Ducks: Why, Every Punctuation Mark Counts. As a homeschooler, who is a stickler for grammar & punctuation, I love to use these books with my children who have very silly senses of humor & respond well to rules put in such a fun & logical style. You will have noticed the extra comma in each title changing the meaning. It is all very purposeful and to prove the point of the difference that proper & improper punctuation can make. Now, how she got her editors to leave all her punctuation marks in the places she put them is another great question!

Anonymous said...

Clearly, the title of the book was a deliberate mistake and meant to grab attention, and it was a resounding success, as the pedants line up to cast aspersions and refuse to open the pages of the book for fear of contamination. Wake up, ladies and gentlemen - there is more to life than the serial comma, although I do insist on keeping it in its place.
Gillian