This past Sunday, the U-T ran a report headlined LACK OF COMMA COSTS COMPANY MILLIONS IN DISPUTE. The outcome of the class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for dairy truck drivers in Maine didn’t come down to trucks, milk, cream, cheese, or hours. Instead, the holding hinged on the lack of a serial comma (also known as the Harvard comma and Oxford comma) that caused grammatical ambiguity in Maine’s overtime laws. As a result, the appeals court sided with five truck-driving plaintiffs, who may win up to $10 million.
This profoundly nerdy ruling is also a win for those of us punctuation pundits who staunchly defend and encourage the use of the serial comma. Here’s what I mean:
- What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?
- A cat has claws at the end of its paws, but a comma is a pause at the end of a clause. (Chuckle, chuckle, snort, snort)
The most important function of the comma is to indicate a natural pause. When you write, rather than speak, you need punctuation marks to serve your readers in the same way that timing, pitch, and inflection serve your listeners. Commas reflect the cadence of the spoken word. When we say, faith, hope, and charity and tall, dark, and handsome, we assign equal pauses after each noun or adjective. In writing, these pauses become commas. That’s why we press commas into service to separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series.
- A series is a succession of two or more items cast in similar grammatical form.
- A series can consist of nouns:We press commas into service to separate words, phrases, or clauses in a series.
- A series can string together a sequence of verbs: Red Riding Hood played a calamitous round of golf, drove into the river, and threw the woods. [Please note: There is no misspelling in this joke. If you think there is, read it a second time.]
- A series can be a succession of adjectives: My red, white, and blue ducky is my favorite bath toy.
- A series can be made up of clauses: I came, I saw the uncut grass, and I ran back into the house.
Note that I have placed a serial comma before each of the conjunctions (in the examples above, the word and) that precede the last item in each series. Most newspapers, including the U-T, and many other publications don’t employ this serial comma, but in more formal writing, such as essays, business letters, and literary works, the serial comma is ordinarily retained. In this installment of “Lederer on Language” my caring and careful editors have allowed me to employ serial commas because without them the whole point of my disquisition would be lost.
I powerfully recommend that you use the serial comma because I have found that in many sentences the comma before the conjunction is an aid to clarity, emphasis, and meaning.
- For dinner, the Girl Scouts ate steak, onions and ice cream. [Sounds as if the Scouts ingested a yucky concoction of onions and (urp!) ice cream. A serial comma before the and would avoid gastronomic disaster.]
- The serial comma is an aid to clarity, emphasis and meaning. [Here, the rhythm of the series sounds uneven. A serial comma before and would help the final term, meaning, to ring out as clearly and emphatically as the others.]
- At summer camp I missed my dog, my little brother, the odor of my dad’s pipe and my boyfriend. [A serial comma before and would avoid odoriferous ambiguity.]
Finally, note the havoc wreaked by the absence of the serial comma in the following Los Angeles Times photo caption (beneath a picture of Merle Haggard), actual book dedication, and sentence from the London Times:
- The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. [Who, exactly, were those ex-wives?]
- To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa [Who, exactly, were the writer’s parents?]
- Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a collector of exotic pornography.