The Fall of Comma-ism

Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, was notorious for carpet-bombing the copy with commas. In James Thurber’s The Years With Ross, he wrote that a professor picked up a copy of The New Yorker and asked why there was a comma in this sentence:

“After dinner, the men moved into the living room.”

Thurber “explained to the professor that this was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up. There must, as we know, be a comma after every move, made by men, on this earth.”

This is not to say that Thurber championed sloppy language. On the contrary. He said, “Precision of communication is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair-trigger balances, when a false or misunderstood word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act.”

E.B. White, in a Paris Review interview, described the copy desk at The New Yorker as a “marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”

Sometimes I think that many of us wish the Wicked Wolf would have spared Grandma and eaten Grammar. But there is no denying the importance of punctuation.

An editor I worked with once sent me a frantic email:

“Nobody cares about the comma but us. So it’s up to us to decide. I am editing and I just don’t know what to do. I want the comma, but I don’t want the pieces either of us edit to be inconsistent. For other editors, I can always overrule their comma preference, but I respect your opinion on the sequential comma. So what will it be. Sequential comma or no?”

My gut reaction was to say no to the sequential comma. I always took it as a rule that the last comma in a series was superfluous. But I checked my Strunk and White (The Elements of Style). Sure enough, they said to leave out what they call the “serial comma.”

Rule #2:

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,

red, white, and blue gold, silver, or copper

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

This comma is often referred to as the “serial” comma. In the names of business firms the last comma is usually omitted. Follow the usage of the individual firm.

Little, Brown and Company Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette

Still, after such a plea, I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be so hasty. Then I took a closer look at Strunk’s and White’s examples. On closer reading, I realized that they went contrary to their own advice and did use the serial comma. So much for precision.

I Googled a bit (as of this writing, AP style requires a capitalized G in “Googled”; ask me again next week) and I found some surprises. Most authorities say to use the serial comma. One of the few exceptions is the AP Stylebook, which Hamodia generally follows. AP takes a utilitarian approach: In a simple series, don’t use a comma before the last item. For a series of complex terms, though, use commas after each, for clarity.

I also found out that the sequential or serial comma was known as the “Oxford comma” — likely because of its traditional required use in all Oxford University Press publications.

The Oxford label gave the serial comma a whole new aura, like the scarlet cap and gown Mark Twain wore at his daughter’s wedding — the same cap and gown he wore when he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Oxford University.

I replied to the overwrought editor with a full confession:

“I am a serial killer of commas. And I dutifully turned myself in to the usage authorities.”

But, in case I would ever start backsliding, I suggested that she keep a box of commas on her desk and pop one in wherever I leave it out.

Years after my contrite confession, I made a shocking discovery: Oxford University has committed linguistic fratricide. They recently issued an internal style guide with the following instructions:

Note that there is no comma between the penultimate item and ‘and’/’or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity — this is sometimes referred to as the “Oxford comma.”

x – He took French, Spanish, and Maths A-levels.

– I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream.

This was the most unkindest cut of all.

Et tu, Oxford? n

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to language@hamodia.com.