Why we need to stop talking about the serial comma

I’ve avoided writing about the serial comma. I hear about it more than I’d like to, so I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation. But I’ve reached my limit. I need to say something: The serial comma doesn’t make your writing any better, and it doesn’t make it worse. If you’re either a strong advocate for it or a fervid critic of it, you’ve missed the point.

There. I said it. Now let me explain.

Choosing to use the serial comma, which is the comma that’s placed in front of “and” before the final item in a list (e.g. “blue, red, and green”), is a style preference. Some people use it; some people don’t. Stylistic decisions should be consistent, but they’re not right or wrong.

However, there are many writers and editors who give the serial comma more credit than it deserves. I’ve seen some people include their opinion on it in their Twitter bios, and I’ve read various blog posts, tweets and articles by defenders of the serial comma.

Recently, this tweet appeared multiple times in my Twitter feed. It includes a link to a page with the headline, “A Case for the Oxford Comma in One Screenshot” and displays a screenshot of a tweet from Sky News.

Image taken from slate.com (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/10/oxford_comma_sky_news_tweet_suggests_that_obama_and_castro_have_set_a_date.html)

Image taken from slate.com (http://slate.me/1bBZXRu)

The assertion was that the tweet could be misinterpreted as saying presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro had set a wedding date. Inserting a serial comma before “and” would show that these are two separate items. This is true. But it’s not the only solution.

In any type of writing, it’s not the lack of a serial comma that creates the confusion; poor writing does. If the headlines listed in the above tweet were rearranged, there would be no misunderstanding.

Here’s another way to illustrate this. When writers explain why the serial comma is necessary, they often use this example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah.” The problem here is that it’s unlikely the author’s parents are actually Bill Clinton and Oprah, as the sentence indicates.

Placing a comma after “Bill Clinton” is one way to fix this, but it’s not the only way. The author can also change the sentence: “I’d like to thank Bill Clinton, Oprah and my parents.” See? No serial comma and yet no confusion.

In fact, sometimes using the serial comma can make things unclear. Take, for example, the sentence “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John, and Mark.” Is the magician named John? Or has Tina gone to dinner with three people? If John is the magician, the author can change the sentence to something like “Tina went to dinner with John, who is a magician, and Mark.”

If John and the magician are different people, the author can remove the serial comma: “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John and Mark.” To keep the serial comma, an alternative is to rearrange the listed items: “Bill went to dinner with John, Ted, and a magician.”

The point is, there are options. In my career, I’ve been requested at various times to use the serial comma and not to use it, and I’ve never had any strong feelings either way, as long as the style was consistent.

It’s nice to see so many people care about punctuation, but don’t miss the point by getting into a frivolous argument. If you want to write better, stop caring about being for or against the serial comma and start caring more about communicating clearly.


Three writing tips (for after you’ve finished writing)

So you’ve finished writing, and maybe you’ve even read your piece once or twice. But before you post/send/submit it, there are a few other things you should do.

Put it aside  

Hopefully you’ll read the piece a few times before you deem it finished. But when it comes to that final read, looking at it with fresh eyes is best. Fast-approaching deadlines can make it difficult to wait a day or even a few hours. But, at the very least, step away from the computer for a couple of minutes and do something else. When you return, you’ll be more likely to see what you actually wrote, not what you meant to write. If it’s possible, get someone else to read it, too.

Read it out loud

It’s easy to skip over problems when you read silently. Your eyes can trick you into thinking you wrote quite when you actually typed quiet. Reading out loud lets your ears catch these kinds of errors. Other benefits: hearing the words will point out run-on sentences and makes overused words and phrases hard to ignore.

Be meticulous

Attention to detail is key. Check everything, including facts, spelling, punctuation and word choices. Remember, even the most common words are often used incorrectly (know when it should be every day or everyday, or if you mean it’s or its). Confirm you’ve been consistent with style (did you use a serial comma in one place, but not in another?). And while you’re checking everything, don’t forget the main idea. Make sure you didn’t miss any points you wanted to address, and that you’ve followed through with what you set out to do.

What else? Feel free to comment with any other tips you have.


Write first, edit later

If you want to write, just write. Heard this before? It sounds easy, but it can be difficult to get your thoughts down without editing along the way. But writing is a process. Getting the ideas out is the first step; fixing the details should come much later.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which means participants attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. The time period encourages writers to put words—any words—on paper (or screen). It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful prose ever written—the work can be polished later on.

Freewriting can help get these words out. Recently I took a writing course with author Brian Francis. At the beginning of each class, Brian had us write for about fifteen minutes. We weren’t to think too much about what we were producing, and we weren’t to go back and redirect our writing.

I found it a bit difficult at first. My natural inclination is to edit as I write. When I write at home, it’s usually on a computer, and I hit Delete multiple times as I go. It’s so convenient; I do everything from fixing typos to choosing better words to changing the direction entirely. But the problem is it ruins the flow, and it can throw a great idea off track.

I didn’t bring my laptop to Brian’s class. I had a good old-fashioned notebook. I put pen to paper at home, too, but mostly to jot down notes and passing thoughts, not to form full paragraphs.

With paper, it’s not as easy to edit while writing. I did go back to strike out things during these freewriting periods, but it wasn’t as convenient. And when I did cross out something, I could still see what I originally wrote when I read it over. Sometimes I liked my initial work better. It made me wonder how many good ideas I’ve lost to the delete key. I’ll never know.

But I’ll continue to write on my laptop. It’s faster than cursive writing, it doesn’t make my hand cramp up and it’s a lot easier for me to read (my penmanship isn’t fantastic). I just need to write on screen the way I can write on paper: free those ideas, then shape them. Write first, edit later.