Posted on March 22, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 96 Comments
Just got through looking at the copyedit of Zoe’s Tale and generally it’s pretty good — the copyeditor has indeed saved me from making an ass of myself on a grammatical level, which is what copyeditors are supposed to do. That said, as I was going through the copyedit I was reminded that apparently the way I use commas, and the way copyeditors use commas, are two completely different things, because I spent a whole lot of time going through and writing STET where my copyeditor either added or subtracted commas.
There are two reasons for this, as far as I can see:
1. As a former newspaperman, I firmly believe that the serial comma is an abomination before humanity and must be eradicated unless it’s absolutely required to avoid ambiguity;
2. I frequently use commas (or remove commas) to set the pace for a sentence.
Since the serial comma is inexplicably the law of the land in book publishing, this means lots of serial commas put in which I then have to take out; since the copyeditor is not always aware I’m using commas (or the lack thereof) for pacing, this means the copyeditor putting (or taking) out commas based on strict grammatical rules. Which again I need to go back and STET.
This is not me blaming the copyeditor, incidentally — the copyeditor’s job is to use the publishing house’s style guide and to correct what he or she sees as grammatical errors. And on my end, there are a several places where the copyeditor changed the comma usage and I’ve felt the change was beneficial. It’s useful for me to have a copyeditor go, “no, no, you need to put a comma here,” so I can say “no, really I don’t,” or, alternately, “hmmm, I guess you’re right.”
That said, I think next time I’ll just ask Tor to stop asking its copyeditors to put in the serial comma during the copyedit. Because the serial comma, it is evil. Evil!
I’m a technical writer, and I swear by the serial comma. It is righteous, I say, righteous! ;)
Of course, Microsoft Word is the spawn of Satan, and FrameMaker is the very mechanism of enlightenment, but that’s a different holy war entirely.
My parents, Ayn Rand and God disagree with you.
And what about Vampire Weekend’s cute little song Oxford Comma?
I grew up reading British literature, and then worked in contracting. I lurrrrve the serial comma.
Well, as I said, I’m not against the serial comma when it reduces ambiguity. But that’s it. All other uses are blasphemy.
In my view, the failure to use the serial comma is a *major* reason the newspaper business is in such bad shape these days. Sure, it took a while for the effects of this widespread moral/punctuational decay to be obvious, but by this point — well, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.
Also, “Oxford Comma” is a good song in its own right.
As a copyeditor (among other things), I’m in charge of setting the style guidelines for my magazine, and I insist on using the serial comma, even if I’m not crazy about the way it sometimes affects a sentence’s flow. I’m sure it drives some of our writers crazy. Conversely, I used to write a monthly column for a UK magazine, and the rules over there – if there are any – seem to discourage comma use entirely. I swear, the editors would just do a find-and-replace and get rid of every comma I used, even if it made a sentence ambiguous or changed its meaning entirely. When I show people columns from those days, I have to assure them that I’m not actually…impaired.
There are some set rules for comma use, but most style manuals (and decent educators) will tell you that personal preference plays a considerable role here. Particularly in fiction writing, editors should give authors plenty of room to shape their sentences and create the rhythms they want. I’m always careful to avoid being insanely pedantic about these things, but it’s not always an easy line to draw.
The solution is really very simple. Let’s ask the referee.*
The AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law says — no.
So don’t. See? Easy.
* An American referee. That Oxford usage stuff is “old” comma.
. As a former newspaperman, I firmly believe that the serial comma is an abomination before humanity and must be eradicated unless it’s absolutely required to avoid ambiguity
John, could you explain this a bit? Do you mean that it’s simply because you were trained in the newspaper industry’s way of doing things, or because of something specific but logical within the industry?
Adam Lipkin — it was traditional in newspapers because that extra comma was another piece of type that had to be slotted in, which back in the old days of hot type made it more difficult to set lines. Hot type hasn’t been used for decades but it stuck in newspapers, and was still part of the AP Style Guide when I started in newspapers (and is still part of it).
Oh, John. I have to agree with the commenter above who noted that the decline of the newspaper industry is directly linked to its failure to embrace the serial comma.
The serial comma is all about the 3 Cs: cadence, clarity, and class.
What! No one is referencing Eats, Shoots and Leaves?
Actually I find the biggest sin of copy editors isn’t the serial comma, so much as it is their near total elimination of the semicolon (of which the serial comma is a symptom); or at best, their utter lack appreciation for its’ proper role.
Whether by a conjunction, an adverb, or by punctuation; independent clauses (and to a lesser extent dependent clauses) should be clearly separated.
The proper separator for independent clauses is not a comma; it is, in fact, a semicolon. If two clauses in a sentence (or even two contiguous sentences) have the same subject and related objects or predicates, it is appropriate to join them with a semicolon.
Commas separate simple lists, subclauses, simple dependent clauses, and phrases within the quotation of speech. Semicolons separate complex lists, full clauses, dependent clauses without a conjunction or conjunctive adverb; and clauses which contain lists, or other internal punctuation.
Don’t even get me started on the substitution of colons for semicolons, improper apostrophe use, or the deprecation of parenthetical expressions.
Oh, goody! It is a rare occasion I get to be on the side of evil! Bwaaaahaahaa!
Brilliant observation and conclusion! I buy this theory! (^_^)
What does STET mean?
…urgh…must not…tease…Byrne about…improper apostrophe use…aaarrgh…
Jeff, I left it in there as a provocation.
“Stet” is the Latin word for “let it stand”. It means leave the original alone; do not make this change. The change to be rejected is underlined with dots and “stet” is written in the margin.
I have had to undo copyediting “corrections” of my punctuation for rhythm (and to take out those damn serial commas) a zillion times.
Except for the one copyeditor who actually talked to me ahead of time and asked me to tell her about my particular wacky writer style quirks, because “you all have them.”
I practically wept. Communication! Up front! It was great. And saved us both a ton of work.
Why don’t more publishers do that? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Oh and I should note: as one who is severely dyslexic, and who primarily writes technical articles and papers where automatic grammar and spelling checks are frequently unhelpful; I greatly appreciate the role, and art, of copy editing.
Really, my complaint grows out of my desire for them to understand what I was thinking, as well as what I was writing, while editing a piece (i.e. “read what I meant, not what I typed dammit”).
Considering how infrequently even I understand what I was thinking; perhaps such a desire is unreasonable.
I stand proudly on the side of evil. Serial commas forever!
Chris @11: I would argue that the bigger sin is having a writing style so unwieldy that it requires the regular use of semicolons. They certainly have their place, but a little goes a long, long way.
jeffk next you’ll be saying we should all be ee cummings
Ok, I’m sorry, that was bad. I just couldn’t resist.
I happen to be serial comma agnostic — I use them when it feels right (must fight temptation to list two more examples).
I’m frustrated by Medical Writers I work with, though, who insist on removing periods from abbreviations, (e.g. eg), since the Americal Medical Association style guide declares them unnecessary. Microsoft Office doesn’t like either set though.
Which brings me to my primary point, which is one of my mantras: Word never passes up an opportunity to confound. Remember that, and you’ll live happier. It’s not you, it’s Word. My younger son has learned to deal with Word’s annoyances in its grammar checker by inserting semicolons. He claims that inserting one at random in a sentence Word dislikes will usually cure it. I beg him — beg him — to let me proofread.
I’ll file your serial comma opinion right next to your opinion about coffee.
Chris @21: My god, man, you’re overcorrecting!
I’ll admit I had to go to Wiki for a refresher course on what a serial comma is and I was coming down on the side of not liking them until I got to this part:
Use of the serial comma can sometimes remove ambiguity. Consider an apocryphal book dedication:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
I guess they have their place.
(And no, I’m not trying to restart all of that insanity.)
No wonder I couldn’t pass english, even the pro’s can’t agree on what is good grammer.
Dang it, why does IE drop random keystrokes?
My bible is Strunk & White; it recommends the serial comma.
We do what we’re trained to do. Newspapers delete serial commas, while everyone else adds them. This is not a solvable problem. Isn’t there some SFWA issue we can argue about instead?
“This is not a solvable problem.”
But it is, at least as far as my work is concerned: it doesn’t have them.
That’s what John meant about the serial comma sometimes being required to avoid ambiguity.
Personally, I hates the serial comma; they always make my brain do a little *clunk* when parsing a sentence.
I abide by the serial comma. As for the other uses of commas, I kill them when I can or any other punctuation clutter I deem unnecessary. Generally, commas are my friend. Unless I have to murder them to avoid the nefarious semi-colon.
I despise semi-colons …
I’ve done copyediting for Tor, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been told to absolutely insert serial commas if the author doesn’t consistently use them.
Good copyeditors respect the author’s preference when it doesn’t contradict house style or specific instructions from the editor. John, if I were editing your manuscripts, I wouldn’t insert serial commas if you seemed to be consistent about not using them.
Even though I think the avoidance of the serial comma is evil. :->
Just curious: is your comma usage in your introductory paragraph ironic? Seems like you’ve got a serial comma in there.
No, my comma usage there is an example of me using commas for pacing purposes.
Yeah, I like the flow of your books better that way too.
The need for the serial comma was explained to me thusly:
“He had coffee, bacon, ham and eggs, and toast.”
“He had coffee, bacon, ham and eggs and toast.”
which then seems wrong.
I agree with John though: though it may be inconsistent to not always use it, not using it except where necessary as above better matches the actual flow of speaking.
Good examples in the wiki.
I’m a fan of the serial comma. Call them evil, but I’ll love (and use) them.
I’m still not clear, though, why you hate them so very much. You’ve mentioned pacing and newspaper typeset… but I still am unclear how they have inspired their evil status in your world. Does it come down to the pacing issue?
From the Wikipedia article on the serial comma:
Oh my God. That abomination has a name and someone recommends it?
One more entry in my growing list of reasons to hate the English language.
Well, at least he had something to do in prison all those years.
Proofreader for an advertising agency here, and my professional and personal opinion is that serial commas rock! I can think of no instances in which they fail to add clarity, and given how technical much of the stuff I read is, anything that improves clarity is a godsend in my book.
I suppose the argument about pacing is valid when it comes to fiction… but I don’t like it, sir!
Chris ByrneWhether by a conjunction, an adverb, or by punctuation; independent clauses (and to a lesser extent dependent clauses) should be clearly separated.
See, where you put a semicolon, I would’ve put a hyphen.
I have no idea where I got that habit from.
Oxford commas, because I’m pretentious like that.
Kurt @ 40 – Perhaps you got it by knowing something went there but the use of semi-colons was beaten out of you in school?
The serial comma is your friend. Learn it, love it, live it.
Ewww, it really irks me when I see writing that doesn’t use the serial comma. Incidentally, I barely see writing like that at all anymore these days. It’s dying out. Serial commas have won; hurrah!
As Bruce, the creator of U. Utah Phillips, once remarked: “Punctuation is no substitute for timing.”
I was once the copyeditor for a college student magazine. I sometimes referred to myself as the comma cop, but I’d have been thrilled to have to worry about something as rarefied as whether to use serial commas. The most common problem I had to fix was the comma placed after, rather than before, the word “and” joining two independent clauses: “The day was sunny and, the birds were singing.” It was amazing how many supposedly literate college students thought this looked all right. The worst of it was that this mistake kept appearing in photo captions, which were usually not run past me.
Apples, oranges and bananas.
I too believe in the evil of the serial comma unless absolutely necessary.
I am sort of amused by the desire for absolute definition regardless of context after spending some time learning Japanese, where context is necessary to interpret even the simplest sentences “absolutely”.
I personally like the serial comma. So maybe you and I part ways here, Scalzi. :)
But I’m definitely with you on using commas to pace a sentence. Unfortunately, I tend to second guess myself once I see how many I’ve sprinkled throughout my text.
Given that hardcover copies of your books list at around $24.95, your insistence that serial commas be removed gives us, the readers, less than what we paid for.
BTW, “The Oxford Commas” would be a good name for a rock band. Or perhaps a rugby team.
So I guess I’ll have to pencil them in into Zoe’s Tale…
Will you still be willing to sign my copy of the book?
As a technical editor who *totally* believes in serial commas for technical stuff and as a voracious reader of fiction who *totally* gets that they can wreck pacing, I say: “Context is all!”
Yeah, I know, wishy-washy. What can I say?
Hey, it’ll be your book, you can do what you want to it. And yes, I’ll still sign it.
There are rules for commas and people debate them? What kind of geeks are you?
Next you’ll argue about joining words like ‘all’ & ‘ways’ and ‘yester’ & ‘day’ and the various meanings.
Really, you need to stop.
Oh, the sorrow, language is becoming so common – it’s inappropriate for literature.
BTW – do you ever get sick of writing STET and feel like putting in F-U? Reviewing copy edits sounds like all sorts of not fun.
Huh. Add me to John when it comes to the serial comma. I don’t use it unless I need it for clarity or pacing.
Yeah, I had journalism training. From Jack Hart, if anyone knows that name. But it also seems that serial comma=bad was taught to me back in high school as well. Can’t remember when or where, it’s been so long.
I like this Oxford Comma:
Glad to see I’m not the only one who uses commas for sentence pacing. :)
I just copyedited an ms for Tor, and the current copyeditor guidelines are unambiguous: “Use the serial comma.” The copyeditor is also supposed to follow THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. So don’t blame the copyeditor for following instructions from the guy what pays him.
On the other hand, it’s the author’s book, and he or she can always undo the changes. John: you have the right idea — if there’s something you know you don’t want changed, for heaven’s sake write a note to the copyeditor. It saves everyone a whole lot of work. Or, if it’s something really weird, you can stet it in advance — Poul Anderson used to do that when I was the science fiction editor at NAL about 35 years ago, and very helpful it was.
It’s always nice to see you take a religious stand, John.
Like many others in this thread, I cannot understate the value of the serial comma when writing about a technical subject. As a Web nrrd, I see its value in a totally different light than most people.
My own usage has evolved; before I started copywriting for my clients on a regular basis, I avoided them; now I use them almost thoughtlessly and bristle on the few occasions when clients ask me to remove them. Make of that what you will.
For prose (as opposed to technical or persuasive pieces) I’m with Scalzi. What the author says goes, as long as he’s not being a dumbass. (And if he’s a dumbass, how did he get a contract?)
If you’re writing something that’s going to require three-plus takes on each audiobook passage, you’re screwing up. Too many commas can do that.
As for the AP and its hallowed Style Guide, I’m reminded of a Simpsons clip I saw on YouTube (apparently DMCA’d since) which goes something like this:
[As Springfield kids sit in the audience, discussion panel guests are introduced to the TV audience; moderator gets to the WaPo reporter.]
NELSON, with nannynannybooboo inflection: HA-ha! Your me-di-um is ir-rel-e-vant!
SKINNER: Nelson! Stop being mean!
NELSON, plaintively: But I’m right!
SKINNER: ‘Right’ is not the same thing as ‘nice!’
May I posit that serial comma is the other side of the coin that has both good and evil as its upper face?
You changed something around here because now your pages are setting off my firewall which they never did before.
Chris Byrne, as a copyeditor, I think serial commas should only be used by licensed professionals after intensive testing and should be completely forbidden to the general public. The rampant abuse is beginning to keep me constant migraine state — the copyeds ain’t the prob here.
“For prose (as opposed to technical or persuasive pieces) I’m with Scalzi. What the author says goes, as long as he’s not being a dumbass. (And if he’s a dumbass, how did he get a contract?)”
If I answer this, I’ll be fired. BUT GOD, HOW I WANT TO. I’ll just say, as vaguely as possible, genre and market? (Dammit. That’s really vague. How about “they’ll sell whatever people will buy”?)
The Oxford or serial comma is the True Path. Use of the serial comma is an effective ward against the abominiation, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. (I use serial comas and I’ve never found a copy of that terrible book in my house. It works!) That said, I’m Reformed Church and naturally agree that adherence to The Rules comes after loyalty to one’s writing. Do what it demands.
(I will say, though, that “But, mom” and “But mom” are two completely different things, and that 1. the first NEVER comes up and 2. I despise that I am forced to stick commas in the second. But… I’m not in charge. And there is absolutely NO reason to use the four-point ellipses unless you’re omitting huge amounts of text while quoting things for a term paper. It does NOT signify trailing off and does not need to be there just because a sentence has ended when it’s freaking obvious that one is at the end of a sentence. But again, I’m not in charge. :-( )
I’m definitely a supporter of the serial comma; the reason for this is most likely because that’s they way I learned to write in elementary school. To my internal parser, the phrase “apples, oranges and bananas” does not mean the same thing as “apples, oranges, and bananas”. I see the first phrase in my mind’s eye as creating two boxes, one for apples, and one for oranges and bananas; the mental image I get from the second phrase is of three boxes, one for each type of fruit.
I will admit to (ab)using commas, semi-colons, and em-dashes as guides to pacing instead of as proper punctuation.
Punctuation shouldn’t come and go, not when it comes to something as basic as the serial comma. It sometimes reduces ambiguity; it never adds any. Therefore, the sensible thing is to use it with a glad heart, knowing one has done a small thing to reduce the ambient ambiguity so that we have the attention that would otherwise be frittered on something as stupid as parsing sentences that could benefit from final serial commas but lack them to much more fun things like picking just one damn Beatles song instead of some sensible number like three or five favorites (which would have allowed enterprising readers in the throes of geeking out to assemble matrices and stuff, too).
Glad to help.
I find commas essential for the correct pacing of some sentences. I do try and take out as many as possible (especially where I’ve shortened a sentence during editing, so the pause is no longer needed), but it’s definitely been the source of a little copyeditor angst over the past four novels.
I guess I have ‘essential commas’ and ‘meh commas’, and removing the latter is not an issue. It’s when they strip out the former I get worried.
JDC @64: I use serial comas and I’ve never found a copy of that terrible book in my house.
I should think that serial comas would prevent you from finding anything around the house, much less a book. ;-)
Serial comma ++
Punctuation nerds, I love it. I understand the complaint about pacing; this comes from the dual role the comma has in English: as a marker for a breath-sized pause, and as a list delimiter. In fiction I usually don’t notice their absence; but in news writing it can become hilarious, and in technical writing a disaster.
Seventy comments on an argument where both sides are, at the very least, situationally correct?! For the love of God, people. Can’t we agree to disagree, and direct our energies toward combatting our common enemy — the superfluous apostrophe (e.g., “apple’s for sale in the 1930’s”)?
To arm’s!To arms!
Fortunately there are entire sites dedicated to enlightenment…
For superfluous apostrophes:
For unnecessary quotation marks:
I’m sure there are many others.
Ah, hot type!
I was 8 or 9 years old when my dad sold the weekly paper and started working as an editor for aomeone else. We only set the ads and printing jobs by hand the rest was done on the linotype machine. The smells of melting metal and hot ink, and the sound of the press are persistant memories.
I started proofreading ads when I was 5 or so and can now read upside-down and backwards as fast as I can read normally. My dad was always editor for all my school papers and now I fear blue pencil more than red ink. We often argued about serial commas, as I think they add clarity more often than not.
I don’t think anyone proofreads at our daily paper now, we find so many errors every day. I just hope they’re still fact-checking.
Ha! I am not alone!
I’m a medical writer, journalist and novelist, as well as the editor of a peer-review technical journal and I frankly wish there was either ONE way of doing this, or NONE, because so much of it is arbitrary.
I thought I was going to get into a fistfight with one of my associate editors on the technical journal when I came on board and disliked the use of “Lab” for “laboratory,” which she thought was too informal, although I felt (and still do feel) that it’s user’s discretion, that the word lab has been in use since the 1800s or early 1900s, and I responded with a memo along the lines of:
Unless we are editing an article about the Labrador Retriever Research Laboratory in Labrador, whose primary research is on the owner’s Lab, Lad, I feel that we will continue to use the author’s choice of either lab or laboratory unless, of course, we feel otherwise on the day we are actually editing the article.
This is why you should not read the blogs of writers you like, for some day you may find a post where they malign the serial comma. And then your sterling mental image of them will be spindled, crushed, and mauled by their clearly wrong-headed views on the comma and its use in lists.
My flabbers, they are truly gasted.
I am not a professional writer, nor am I a professional editor. I am, however, a discriminating reader who learned grammar in the 60’s and early 70’s. I always use the serial comma in short lists because it makes things read “right” to me. I don’t often have the opportunity to write for group, much less mass, consumption, but when the opportunity arises, I try to do right by my lessons.
Long live the serial comma!
That being said, I found this whole discussion quite humorous to the point of causing fits of LOL.
BTW- Congrats on the Hugo nomination Scalzi!
I use serial commas in non-narrative non-fiction and my technical specs. I’m a programmer and all that. Syntax is important.
In fiction and narrative non-fiction and, dare I say it, fun non-fiction, all bets are off.
By the way, “Eats, shoots and leaves” is not an example of serial comma abuse. It is an example of stupid comma. The real sentence has NO commas at all: “A panda eats shoots and leaves”.
By the way, “Eats, shoots and leaves” is not an example of serial comma abuse. It is an example of stupid comma. The real sentence has NO commas at all: “A panda eats shoots and leaves”.
Well, it’s the punch-line to a joke, in which the comma isn’t stupid, and is, in fact, necessary.
And above re: apostrophe use: in 71? That’s not superfluous; that’s wrong >.>
I have a comma problem and that’s all there i to it.
I like your use of it for pacing which is something I’ve been doing because I tend to write as it would be spoken. But I overuse it and one of the major things when I write now is taking more of them out and using them right.
Point taken. But still. Click that first link in #72. The top exhibit (dated Thursday 3/20/08) made me laugh out loud. It’s superfluous, and wrong, and bizarre, and gobsmacking, and… well, you’ll see.
Our Gracious Host writes at 52:
“Hey, it’ll be your book, you can do what you want to it. And yes, I’ll still sign it.”
Yes, but if we get it on the Kindle, instead of buying a print copy, does the license allow us to add serial commas? (And what if we have to break the DRM to do it?) I expect you to clear this up with your publishers posthaste.
My problem with only using serial commas to eliminate ambiguity is that everyone who does so always underestimates my ability to be ambiguified.
Plus, “and” has got enough work to do just signifying “here comes the last thing”, without saddling it with an imaginary comma hat.
Lovely Angel #72:
One word to describe those links: AAAAAUUUUGGHH!
Now I’m beginning to hatch a theory that the same people who introduced the Barryan superfluous apostrophe have secretly been hijacking innocent commas to double the agony of the astute reader. Because, of course, the commas would never get high on their own.
Strunk and White are my saviors; I shall not wan’t.
“Punctuation, is? fun!”
(apologies to Daniel Keyes, and to Charlie)
Michelle, yeah, I know the joke and the book.
I just don’t think it’s a supporter of “not having an ending serial comma for a list is evil”. :)
The punctuation debate is muy fun.
I know I’m late to the party, but I’m siding with evil on this one. John’s rule, no serial comma except to avoid ambiguity, is no rule at all; the point of including a serial comma every time is to avoid ambiguity (and yes, to signal the end of the list). The point of not using a serial comma is to save effort in laying out type, which nobody does anymore.
E-V-I-L! Goooo EVIL!
I read this thread, trying to understand where I stood on the serial comma. Then I realized that I don’t like the type of sentences that require serial comments, so I am apt to rephrase them and avoid the issue from the outset.
(I used to proof my friends’ papers in college and I remember one rather interesting example where I was reading an engineer’s English paper and trying to figure out how he managed to use “however” properly in ever single instance, yet managed to stop the flow of words dead every time. Instead of giving precise notes on that one I gave him a general note that said, “You’re not allowed to use ‘however’ anymore.”)
People keep talking about how tiredness makes them forgetful. Apparently it exacerbates my tendency to use the wrong word.
Had you lived in an earlier era, and written for The New Yorker, you would have had difficulties with its legendary founding editor, Harold Ross. James Thurber wrote several times about Ross’ overuse of commas:
Not serial commas, I know, but still a likely source of conflict. Best watch out for that if you ever get that time machine and start hanging around the Algonquin.
RE: Typesetting-induced traditional dislike of unneeded punctuation:
This day and age of digital word processing and publishing obviously makes this complaint’s premise null and void, along with the double-space following periods, and I’m sure other conventions of similar origin ought to follow likewise. Like any language (or culture), ours must evolve with the times or perish – it is historical fact (perhaps I should say it is a historical trend) that any such which refuses to do so, and chooses instead to codify and strictly enforce a prescriptive list of static laws, fails to evolve, and is eventually moved down the food chain into eventual but inevitable obsolescence.
RE: Why this happens? (By “this” I mean the conflict between the pro- and con- parties here represented.):
It may be a factor in the overuse of commas, and thereby the consequential extremist approach taken against the abuse of them that sometimes removes those that truly belong, that schools these days often do not really teach well the use of commas OR of other, more rarified punctuation marks, such as semicolons, hyphens (and M- & N-dashes), parentheses (and brackets & braces), et al. I will admit the possibility that I abuse or misuse these too, but at least I do so consistently, and there is variety in my madness, rather than an indiscriminate perfect comma-storm. (Similarly I confess to likely criminal acts in the overuse of adverbs, redundancy in hyphen as compound-word-mortar, and savage slaughter-removal of many apostrophes that others consider critical – I would rather admit guilt in petty offenses, than pretend innocence of felony.) Generally speaking, man is imperfect (and by “man”, permit me to use it in the gender neutral sense of humanity), and so, as one must err, err on the side of caution – as Blaise Pascal wagered in the Pensées, it’s in your likeliest best interest – use the tool to prevent ambiguity, and it harms none.
RE: Comma as a tool of pacing control, and/or “I use commas where I would pause in speaking” i.e. “I write like I speak”:
Is it not possible that this situation, then, is not a sign that readers and copy editors write wrongly, but that you speak poorly? If you need a pause where there is no rule allowing for the appropriate placement of a punctuation mark, such that you feel obliged to introduce one (and choose, as a passive-aggressive default, the comma, as the mark least understood for all its commonality, most multifunctional, therefore least objectionable), might you not reconsider, and ask yourself if it is you, and not the comma, that is to blame? Rephrase, reread, and let assumption lay down her weary, shrewish head.
If you are going to use typeset and punctuation to set the rhythm of your writing, rather than ideas, plot, characterization, etc., you might as well go all the way – write with wing-dings and other emotive fonts, sizes, spacing; do the writing and lettering for graphic novels (then, at least, you’ll have panels to play with timing and tone); or, go into directing in the moving pictures business and toss the written word entirely.
P.S. Whether or not it needs to be said, I am an advocate of the serial comma; I feel justified in this stance not only by virtue of the many excellent supports cited above by others of this opinion, but also as a trained linguist. (While I am not a professional journalist of umpteen years’ history on either side of the Pond, I feel also that I can claim a certain degree of authority as a writer, a copy editor, and a voracious reader, across genres and disciplines.)
The principal motive force of communication IS a marriage (and by marriage, I mean an equal and symbiotic relationship) of economy and clarity, yes; so while I will admit that one can have too much of a good thing, it is obvious that where ambiguous interpretations may be deduced and are not wanted (ex. poetry, humor, etc.), the comma is a keystone that keeps grammar and meaning from tumbling down into rubble.
Furthermore, I will say, while wearing my ‘copy editor’ cap, that consistency is a good thing, and is perhaps even essential – so if you must err, and unwisely, at least do not waffle, I beg you.
However, I will rebut as a reader, the idea that the author needs control of pacing for the sake of dictating how his writing is read reveals less about the relationship between the written and the spoken word, and is more a betrayal of the kind of megalomania in which some people indulge. Go ahead and tell your editor at the outset if you’re planning on clinging to any rule like ‘no serial commas ever,’ but don’t assume you have any fine control over how your reader reads your work. I bought your book, paid good cash you accepted in exchange; it’s mine now to think of or do with or breathe during, as I like.
Cat in Pink, Re: your recommendations toward my writing:
That’s funny, I didn’t think I was really making any comments specific to your writing at all. I guess I demonstrate my last point, at least.
More seriously, of course, I’m well aware that once it leaves my hands, it’s in the hands of the readers. Be that as it may, I want to give the best possible setting for the work, which includes the punctuation I use and how I use it. What the readers do with it from that point is up to them.
Here’s what I practice and what I teach my kids (yes, it came up in 3rd grade for my daughter): read the style guide for the project you’re working on and do what it says. Be a good enough writer to understand how to work with both styles, and use the one that is appropriate for the job.
The whole serial comma question is just like the often-questionable grammar flagging in Word: a sign that you may need to find a different way of writing a given sentence. When I’m writing technical material, I produce green-free Word documents because I take the grammar checker’s suggestions as a sign to rewrite. I have yet to find a single instance where I couldn’t improve the wording and escape the error.
Obviously, all bets are off for fiction, assuming that your editorial team gives you that leeway.
Late to the party, but… Personally, I like the serial comma, but I believe the most important words on Punctuation come from the Introduction to the Punctuation section in the Chicago Manual:
“Punctuation should be governed by its function, which is to make the author’s meaning clear, to promote ease of reading, and in varying degrees to contribute to the author’s style.”
The serial comma is just one of the many major differences between AP style and Chicago style. Personally, I prefer Chicago (which is what most publishers use). I can imagine it’s tough copyediting a novel, though, knowing full well that the author often has specific purposes in using punctuation that simply can’t be known.