Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Be a Serial Killer

Newspaper style generally eschews the serial comma. I'm fine with that. Toast, juice, milk and Trix. But sometimes that comma is useful. If I write about a city's departments of housing, parks and recreation and well-being, do I mean there's a department of parks and recreation or a department of recreation and well-being? And what if my series consists of three or four full sentences? For many serial-comma-phobic journalists, the answer to those questions tends to be: Semicolons! Ugly, unwieldy semicolons. Clearly, those journalists did not actually read the stylebook to which they are slavishly devoted. AP specifically says that the serial comma is needed in those cases.
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

So it's The departments of housing, parks and recreation, and well-being, not the departments of housing; parks and recreation; and well-being. Once one of the elements in a series includes a comma, then you want those ugly, unwieldy semicolons: The committees on appropriations; health, education and welfare; and labor.


Deb Schiff said...

Thank you for your post on the serial comma, Bill. When I was a magazine copy editor, one point of agreement among all of us at the Copy Desk was the use of the serial comma.

I wonder if that preference is linked to our similar ages and educations in Northern New Jersey. Your thoughts?

Bill said...

Jersey? Not me. And nobody is as old as I am :-).

I honestly (and oddly) have no strong feelings about the serial comma in general, but in examples like these it's clearly required.

WendyM said...

Thank you, Bill, for your succinct and clearly expressed blog on the serial comma. I’m an Australian freelance editor. The Australian style for the serial comma is the same as AP style. I will be sharing your blog on my Facebook page: