Serious Serial Comma Silliness

I am a fan of the Oxford comma (also called the series or serial comma): parsley, sage, rosemary[,?] and thyme. Or at least I thought I was. Recent conversations and reading have led me to think again about where I place my comma allegiances, and why.

My go-to example in favour of the series comma has always been this one:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.

One might question who my parents are, exactly. Add the Oxford comma and the fog clears:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

However, the fog clears only because “parents” is plural and Bono, bless him, is just one person. Consider this:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Now we can’t tell the difference between the series comma and the pair of commas used to set off what’s called a non-restrictive appositive. A what now? This is just a fancy name for an optional descriptive word or phrase for the noun next to it. If Bono were my father, his name in this sentence would be an optional modifier of “father”. But since he is not, leaving out the series comma may actually be more clear:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Or not. As you may have noticed, we have come full circle to a sentence constructed exactly like the first example. So an interesting side note might be that if Bono and Lady Gaga were indeed my parents, a second comma would be required in the first example above to delineate that sneaky non-restrictive appositive. Bonus points if you can place it. 🙂

In the end, and in my opinion, the best option is to change the order of the list in question:

I’d like to thank Bono, Lady Gaga[,] and my father [or parents] for their inspiration. 

Now it really doesn’t matter if the series comma is there or not.

In her book The Subversive Copy EditorCarol Fisher Saller uses similar examples to caution against what she calls “witless, raging allegiance to one style or the other.” She acknowledges the importance of rules to establish standards for consistency. The rules are there for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary distraction for a reader. When following the rule itself becomes a distraction, then suddenly we editors have defeated our own purpose. 

So am I still a fan of the Oxford comma? Perhaps, but hopefully not to the point of being witless and raging. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 6.19) maintains that the series comma solves more problems than it creates, and I tend to agree. However, I am rather charmed by the cheeky footnote at the beginning of Matthew Stevens’s book The Subtleties of Scientific Style, which sets a certain tone:

I am not a fervent proponent of the “serial” or “Oxford” comma, so you will find here instances of where I haven’t inserted a comma where you might have. Without our getting into an argument about “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, this usage reflects schooling and not logic. I can find examples of where the serial comma creates ambiguity, not solves it. But feel free to insert your own commas. Here are some spares: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Stevens, The Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. viii

I am grateful for the reminder to avoid the tar pits of style rules, but what is life without a bit of serious silliness?

Comma Confusion: To Include or Not to Include?

Recently, in reviewing an academic article, I came across the following sentence in the notes to a table:

“Industry and year-specific intercepts are not included for brevity.”

At first glance, the meaning might seem obvious, but let’s look again. Are you including the intercepts or not? Because this could mean two things: that the intercepts are there not for brevity but for completeness, OR that in an effort to be brief, the intercepts have been left out. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) addresses this in section 6.31:

A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. For instance, in the first example below, it is not necessarily true that “we will agree to the proposal”; it is, however, true that “we will agree” to it “if you accept our conditions.”

We will agree to the proposal if you accept our conditions.

Paul was astonished when he heard the terms.

He wasn’t running because he was afraid; he was running because he was late.

If the dependent clause is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. Such distinctions are occasionally tenuous. In fact, as the third example below makes clear, the meaning in such cases can depend entirely on the presence or absence of a comma (compare with the third example above). If in doubt, rephrase.

I’d like the tom yum, if you don’t mind.

At last she arrived, when the food was cold.

He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.

or

Because he was afraid to move, he didn’t run.

CMOS 17, 6.31 “Comma following main clause”

Bottom line: we include the comma for clarity. For clarity, we include the comma. We do not include the comma for frivolity, we include it for clarity. 

Do you see what I did there? 

While we’re on the topic of clarity, let’s look at the hyphen. “[Y]ear-specific intercepts” is clear enough, but are we talking about industry intercepts or industry-specific intercepts? An expert in the field may find this laughable and the answer obvious, but for the sake of clarity, if we are talking about industry-specific intercepts, we would need what Chicago 17 calls the “suspended hyphen” (section 7.88): “industry- and year-specific intercepts”. 

Put that all together, and the diamond-clear sentence looks like this:

For brevity, industry- and year-specific intercepts are not included. 

As a proofreader, it would technically be my job to only flag this to the publisher, but not to mark it for correction. As a copy editor, I would fix it because the assigned style guide backs me up in both cases. Depending on the publication process and my relationship with the managing editor, as a proofreader I may have room to make a judgement call. 

But yes, I am one of those rare breeds who thinks this stuff is fun, and fascinating. And sometimes, a missing comma can have big consequences, so it’s worth it to have someone around who notices these things.