: views from the Hill

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Serial commas ... or not?

An editor in Australia insists the serial comma is used in America and, therefore, Americans should use serial commas. Period.

(As a very minor matter, Father Luke is an American, so there should be a comma before the "and". )

Not necessarily, as I pointed out on his blog. I write according to what an editor asks of me. If an editor wants serial commas, I'll use them. If not, I don't, unless the comma is needed to clarify what might be confusing writing. (The classic example of a sentence that needs a serial comma to make clear sense is the perhaps apocryphal book dedication: "I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.")

Not all Americans use serial commas, I said.

Alas, he swatted my demurs away. He edits American writing he said.

So? was my thought.

I was thumbing through my stacks of magazines today, ripping out pages, tossing the bulk. On a whim, I decided to see if there were serial commas in the articles, or a lack thereof.

I am here to report back that in the magazine I checked (W) there was a lack thereof. Seems not all American editors believe in serial commas. Of the articles I checked, all articles that had sentences that could have used serial commas didn't.

I can't find the September issue of W site on the Web but I did find a click to an article about Janet Jackson from W's October issue. Note that the first sentence of the article is missing the serial comma before the "and" that some people say Americans should always use.

House style for W seems to be no serial commas, but then that makes sense, doesn't it? Why would there even be something called "the Harvard comma" (a nod to the fact that Harvard has the serial comma as part of their house style) if the serial comma is ubiquitous?

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