Em Dash (theemdash) wrote in fandom_grammar,
Em Dash
theemdash
fandom_grammar

Friday Feature: A Special Comma

I'm doing a pinch hit this week. The writer for the planned feature has come down with a case of the Real Life, so I'm cobbling this together at the last minute. Thankfully, I'm well-versed in the topic at hand. Are you?

Poll #1200676 A Special Comma

What do you call the comma before "and" in the following sentence: Jack O'Neill leads Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c on SG-1.

Harvard comma
3(3.8%)
Oxford comma
33(42.3%)
Serial comma
23(29.5%)
I don't know.
10(12.8%)


Grammar mavens should be able to identify that the comma before the and in the above example (Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c) is a special kind of comma but they may not know that it can be called a serial comma, an Oxford comma, or a Harvard comma.

This little comma is given the name "serial comma" because it appears in a serial list of items. It's given the names "Oxford comma" and "Harvard comma" because it is part of the house style for both Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press. The reason it's given a special name (and is used as part of the publishing house style at these two universities) is because there is some controversy in its use; namely should it be used?

Use of the serial comma is very generally divided along lines of Americans tending to use it and Brits tending to not use it, though as Lynn Truss points out in Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

In Britain, where standard usage is to leave it out, there are those who put it in ... In America, conversely, where standard usage is to leave it in, there are those who make a point of removing it (especially journalists).


Even though the serial comma is largely stylistic, there are some grammarians who have very strong feelings about it. Some feel that the absence of the serial comma "implies a closer connection than actually exists between the last two elements of the series, and it ignores the pitch change, however slight, represented by the comma" (Understanding English Grammar, Kolln & Funk) For grammarians concerned with that pitch change, punctuation is the graphic representation of speech signals and every comma signifies how to read the sentence, therefore "leaving one out" is a travesty.

While there are arguments both for and against the use of the serial comma, the primary argument revolves around ambiguity; the ambiguity that its use clarifies and the ambiguity that the serial comma creates.


Resolving Ambiguity

The serial comma can resolve ambiguity by clearly defining the elements in a list.

The Goa'uld had a nice long gloat over capturing the reconnaissance team, Jack and Daniel.


In this example, Jack and Daniel can be read in apposition to the reconnaissance team, meaning that Jack and Daniel are defining the reconnaissance team. Without the serial comma this sentence can mean that the Goa'uld captured two people, Jack and Daniel.

But if that's not what is meant, if the Goa'uld actually captured the reconnaissance team and Jack and Daniel, then the serial comma can clarify that.

The Goa'uld had a nice long gloat over capturing the reconnaissance team, Jack, and Daniel.


Another way the serial comma can clarify ambiguity in sentences is when the final element in a series is a compound containing a conjunction.

Daniel's favorite MREs include chicken cacciatore, chicken marsala, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.


Are there three items or four items in this list? Without the serial comma it's difficult to tell if the list of MREs are:

1. chicken cacciatore
2. chicken marsala
3. fried chicken and macaroni and cheese

Or

1. chicken cacciatore
2. chicken marsala
3. fried chicken
4. macaroni and cheese

In this case, the serial comma can clearly show that the writer meant that Daniel has four favorite MREs.

I should also note that some lists can just be reordered and revised to eliminate the ambiguity and ignore the serial comma. The examples above can be rewritten as:

The Goa'uld had a nice long gloat over capturing Jack, Daniel and the reconnaissance team.

Daniel's favorite MREs include macaroni and cheese, chicken cacciatore, chicken marsala and fried chicken.


However, it is my personal opinion that the second sentence loses something with the reordering of the list. "Macaroni and cheese" is essentially a punch line, and placing it first loses all the comedic value.


Creating Ambiguity
As much as I advocate the use of the serial comma, I must concede that even though it can resolve ambiguity, it can also create ambiguity.

Daniel's grandfather, Jack, and Sam were shifted out of phase by the crystal skull.


Once again, the problem is that the second term, Jack, can be read as in apposition to Daniel's grandfather. In this reading the commas serve a parenthetical function, supplying additional information to the sentence.

While I would just shift the words in this sentence (for example, Sam, Jack, and Daniel's grandfather), you could also eliminate the serial comma and thereby eliminate the ambiguity.

Daniel passed moonshine to Jack, his wife, and Skarra.


Again, the second term in this list, his wife, can be read in apposition to Jack, and while I'd purport that to be true, in this context the writer is probably referring to Sha're, not Jack.

In this example you can clarify what is meant without removing the serial comma! This can be done by restating the preposition before each item in the list.

Daniel passed moonshine to Jack, to his wife, and to Skarra.


It's not the prettiest sentence ever, but if you're in love with serial commas, it's a way to be able to use it without creating ambiguity in your sentence. Other options, of course, are to rearrange the terms (Jack, Skarra, and his wife) or to simply name all of the characters (Jack, Sha're, and Skarra).


Unresolved Ambiguity
Sometimes the serial comma, or the absence of a serial comma, doesn't matter—the sentence can be ambiguous no matter what! In those cases, it's best to use other punctuation that gets across your intended meaning.

serial comma SG-1 is comprised of Teal'c, a scientist, and an archaeologist.

no serial comma SG-1 is comprised of Teal'c, a scientist and an archaeologist.


As we've seen before, the commas here can make the following terms be read in apposition to the preceding terms. There are several ways to punctuate this sentence so that it is clear that Teal'c is not a scientist nor a scientist and an archaeologist, and that this is in fact referring to three people.

conjunctions SG-1 is comprised of Teal'c and a scientist and an archaeologist.

provide context SG-1 is comprised of Teal'c, one scientist, and an archaeologist.

provide context SG-1 is comprised of three members: Teal'c, a scientist, and an archaeologist.

reorder the list SG-1 is comprised of a scientist, an archaeologist, and Teal'c.


For the sake of completion, if the sentence were talking about two people (The youngest members of SG-1 are Sam, a scientist, and Daniel.), the punctuation can be clarified thusly.

parenthetical The youngest members of SG-1 are Sam (a scientist) and Daniel.

parenthetical The youngest members of SG-1 are Sam—a scientist—and Daniel.

reorder The youngest members of SG-1 are the scientist Sam and Daniel.


And finally if the sentence were referring to one person (The ladies swoon for Daniel, an archaeologist and a linguist.)

em dash The ladies swoon for Daniel—an archaeologist and a linguist.

context The ladies swoon for Daniel, who is an archaeologist and a linguist.


As both can be considered correct, to use the serial comma or not use the serial comma is a decision you should make for yourself. The important point is to maintain consistency throughout your piece, and to always be on the look out for ambiguity.

And as a point of interest in style, how do the readers at fandom_grammar feel about the serial comma?

Poll #1200677 The Serial Comma

Do you use the serial comma?

I use the serial comma in all sentences, paragraphs, and writing.
18(42.9%)
I use the serial comma only in specific situations for clarity.
21(50.0%)
I do not use the serial comma in any sentences, paragraphs or writing.
3(7.1%)

Tags: !feature, author:theemdash, punctuation, punctuation:commas, usage:non-american, usage:punctuation
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