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#1
Old 04-21-2008, 12:18 AM
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Terminal comma? Yay or nay?

Inspired by this thread on whether to use one or two spaces after a period.

I grew up learning to put two spaces after a period. It would take me at least 20 minutes to figure out how to to force vBulletin to do two spaces in a row, and I wouldn't bother because I'm not used to it anymore.

I also think this looks weird:

I typed, I edited and I proofread. Not that I think it's just ugly. Following the same logic:

I came, I saw I conquered.

I believe, I insist on, and I crave the terminal comma. But my boss tells me that comma before the last item in a series is still an "optional comma." I can understand how this would be reasonable in print, when you want to save ink. But if it's optional, do we still not need to be consistent and include or exclude it consistently, regardless of conveniently fitting a number of characters before a line break? And if we're looking to save bits, the terminal comma is the coup de grace after we've minimized our reliance on other large media files.

So, what is the most recent verdict on this?
#2
Old 04-21-2008, 12:51 AM
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The proper term is serial comma. It's a must.
#3
Old 04-21-2008, 12:55 AM
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Like every other "rule" and matter of usage, it's a question of the prevailing style of the publication or context in which the writing will appear. If you're writing for your own book, publication, Web site, or what have you, feel free to use the serial comma, and whatever other styles you happen to like.

But it seems to be out of favor with most major print publications. AP style says no serial comma, and I believe most major newspapers follow AP style in that and most other particulars. (Just imagine the thousands of trees and gallons of ink that have been saved by not putting in all those millions of commas!)

OTOH, the Chicago Manual of Style says to use the serial comma.

Me personally, I use the serial comma in my publication (I got to set my own stylebook), and in all my writing. I think that the potential for confusion is far greater without it than with it. The classic example in which its absence is a problem takes the form, "I'd like to thank my parents, God and Madonna." AFAIK, there is no similar problem that can arise from its use.

However, ultimately it's a matter of opinion. There's no objective "scientific" proof that one style is better than the other. Whatever rule is in place for the place in which your writing will appear will decide whether it's used or not.

If, as seems to be the case, your workplace has no established style, you should use the serial comma in all your writing, and do your best to point out its advantage to others so as to establish it as a de facto style. (Of course, if you're going to piss off your boss, you'll have to decide if a comma is worth your job! )
#4
Old 04-21-2008, 01:18 AM
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As has been said, this is a matter of style, rather than a formal rule. You can pick whichever you want as long as you remain consistent.

Newspapers tend to favor rules that minimize the number of characters used. AP style, for example, does not use the serial comma.

In books and other publications, space is at less of a premium. University of Chicago style, probably the most popular one for books, uses the serial comma.

I generally use Chicago style myself, and prefer the serial comma anyway because I agree it tends to minimize possible confusion.
#5
Old 04-21-2008, 03:40 AM
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Though I'm a fan myself of the Oxford comma, I think the first sentence you presented has slightly different connotations with or without it. I typed, I edited, and I proofread seems pretty unmarked to me, whereas I typed, I edited and I proofread reads to me like a more eccentric version of I typed-- I edited and I proofread.
#6
Old 04-21-2008, 09:06 AM
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I like the Oxford comma. Without it, it changes the meaning, IMHO - it makes the last two activities seem like smaller subsets of one larger activity which is equal in importance to the others.

"I put on my shirt, my trousers, my socks and and my shoes" might be ok as those two go together as one activity. "I put on my shirt, my trousers and my hat" sounds to me like you were trying to do the last two at the same time. Or something.

But each to their own.
#7
Old 04-21-2008, 09:22 AM
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As noted, it's not a rule, it's a matter of style. There have been numerous discussions here on this, and here is a


of past discussions plus what other sources have to say.
#8
Old 04-21-2008, 09:31 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Engywook
I came, I saw I conquered.
It needs something in there, because the above reads (to me) as 'I came, I saw that I had conquered'
#9
Old 04-21-2008, 11:51 AM
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Most of my clients specify whether or not they want the serial comma or not -- irrespective of which style manual they use as their editorial basis.

My favorite why-you-should-use-it example:
compare:
Id like to dine with my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Id like to dine with my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.


Is there an original attribution for that?
#10
Old 04-21-2008, 12:17 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rhythmdvl
Is there an original attribution for that?
I give almost the same example in the summary I linked to two posts above. The one I have always seen is an apocryphal book dedicatation. I have searched extensively without being able to find a source.
#11
Old 04-21-2008, 12:28 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Engywook

I came, I saw I conquered.
The serial comma rule doesn't play into this, as far as I've always understood. Whether you follow the serial comma rule or not, you would have "I came, I saw, I conquered." The objection to the final comma is with the conjunction "and." Some argue that combining the comma and "and" is redundant, that the "and" itself implies a comma. At least this was the explanation always given to me, and it's the only way I could see how omitting the final comma would make sense.

I was raised on AP style, which omits that final comma, but I've long since come to conclude that the serial comma is desirable. I can think of many examples (some cited above) where the serial comma will prevent ambiguity and increase clarity, but I cannot think of any examples where the serial comma would cause reader confusion.

Last edited by pulykamell; 04-21-2008 at 12:29 PM.
#12
Old 04-21-2008, 12:40 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CookingWithGas
I give almost the same example in the summary I linked to two posts above. The one I have always seen is an apocryphal book dedicatation. I have searched extensively without being able to find a source.
So if it's public domain-ish, I can feel free to change it about and stop referring to Ayn Rand? Good.
#13
Old 04-21-2008, 01:02 PM
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1. Consult the style guide preferred by the publication you are writing for, the teacher/professor who will be reviewing your work, etc.

2. If you are not writing "to" a given style guide, the serial comma is optional unless:

--a. "and" is omitted, in which case it is mandatory. (cf. Caesar's remarks quoted above).

--b. Omission of the serial comma would lead to ambiguity or lack of clarity. (My parents, Ayn Rand and God all say so.)

--c. You are being inconsistent. Choose one and stick to it. If you need to use it once to avoid ambiguity, use it consistently.

That said, the modern trend outside the realm of journalism is to use it. But that's by no means a consensus, and journalism makes a very large exception to that standard.

As evidence for my post, I cite my college professors, commasense and Colibri.
#14
Old 04-21-2008, 01:20 PM
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"I typed, I edited[,] and I proofread."

This particular sentence used as example in the OP illustrates one minor instance of a relatively rare form of ambiguity that would call for a mandatory serial comma.

Notice that "proofread" has identical written present and past tense forms, as.do a handful of other English verbs. With the comma, you are clearly establishing three parallel past document production activities you have done. Monday I typed, Tuesday I edited, and Wednesday I proofread. Without it, the parallelism is no so clear, and out of context the sentence might mean, "Once I was a typist, then an editor, and now I'm a proofreader," with the last verb present tense. It's a stretch, but a possible misunderstanding, depending on whether you hear in your head "proof-red" or "proof-reed" (using the homonyms for clarity). To avoid giving the occasional reader that "Huh?" moment, the careful writer opts for the serial comma.
#15
Old 04-21-2008, 01:27 PM
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I stopped using the serial comma for several years because I was writing mostly for publications that used journalistic styles. For consistency and ease of thinking (or not thinking) I stopped using it for all writing.

But I've gone back to it. There are too many sentences that offer the possibility of confusion when the serial comma is omitted. Using one eliminates the confusion (except in rare cases in which semicolons might be a better alternative.) I can't think of any negatives to their use. Having one extra space or two in a complete article is meaningless. The odds than an individual sentence with a serial comma would cause space issues are minuscule.

So my advice is to use it unless a style guide instructs you not to for a particular audience. It just works better.
#16
Old 04-21-2008, 02:05 PM
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Im glad this was a punctuation thread. I read the title and immediately thought, Typo. Then I thought about a person being bludgeoned to death by an irate proofreader wielding a copy of Grammatically Correct.
#17
Old 04-21-2008, 02:08 PM
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I was going to vote "nay," but only because I read the thread title as "Terminal coma? Yay or nay?
#18
Old 04-21-2008, 02:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
As evidence for my post, I cite my college professors, commasense and Colibri.
Well done, my boy!
#19
Old 04-21-2008, 02:40 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Annie-Xmas
I was going to vote "nay," but only because I read the thread title as "Terminal coma? Yay or nay?
#20
Old 04-21-2008, 02:50 PM
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As a matter of strict grammar, I think the "veni, vidi, vici" quotation does not implicate the serial comma, because it really ought to use semicolons instead.

"I came; I saw; I conquered."
#21
Old 04-21-2008, 02:55 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom Tildrum
As a matter of strict grammar, I think the "veni, vidi, vici" quotation does not implicate the serial comma, because it really ought to use semicolons instead.

"I came; I saw; I conquered."
Thank you, Tom, that's what I was thinking too. Since every clause can stand alone as a sentence, they should be set off by semi-colons, not commas. IMO. Which I'm sure eleventy-six people will now tell me is wrong.

Oh, and one more vote for the serial / Oxford comma. It reduces confusion and adds clarity.
#22
Old 04-21-2008, 03:02 PM
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So going by Polycarp's post, it would seem it's better just to use the serial comma than not. There are situations where it's better to use the comma. There are no situations where it's better to use no comma. If you use it once, you must be consistent, so you can't just call on it when necessary. May as well just use it at all times in that case.
#23
Old 04-21-2008, 03:25 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jodi
Thank you, Tom, that's what I was thinking too. Since every clause can stand alone as a sentence, they should be set off by semi-colons, not commas. IMO. Which I'm sure eleventy-six people will now tell me is wrong.
I won't say it's wrong. It's certainly not incorrect to set it off with semi-colons. You're right--normally, something like "I came, I saw, I conquered" would be considered an unacceptable comma splice. But commas are usually permitted and preferred in this type of construction, which is called an asyndeton. Sentences which are composed of parallel, short independent clauses can be set off by commas. The sentence is seen as omitting the final conjunction ("I came, I saw, [and] I conquered") for rhetoric effect rather than being three independent sentences.

But I don't see anything wrong with "I came; I saw; I conquered."
#24
Old 04-21-2008, 03:40 PM
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If you pause while reading, insert a comma. A comma indicates, among other things, a pause.

I cannot see the slightest justification for omitting any comma, and every reason to include all in both of these passages:

I typed, I edited, and I proofread.

I came, I saw, I conquered.


That's an absolute rule with anything I write or edit.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase
There are too many sentences that offer the possibility of confusion when the serial comma is omitted. Using one eliminates the confusion (except in rare cases in which semicolons might be a better alternative.) I can't think of any negatives to their use. Having one extra space or two in a complete article is meaningless. The odds than an individual sentence with a serial comma would cause space issues are minuscule.
Hear, hear.
#25
Old 04-21-2008, 03:49 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bosstone
So going by Polycarp's post, it would seem it's better just to use the serial comma than not. There are situations where it's better to use the comma. There are no situations where it's better to use no comma. If you use it once, you must be consistent, so you can't just call on it when necessary. May as well just use it at all times in that case.
Unless your parents really are Ayn Rand and God.
#26
Old 04-21-2008, 04:09 PM
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Eats leaves and shoots.
#27
Old 04-21-2008, 04:15 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ouryL
Eats leaves and shoots.
Actually, it's "eats, shoots and leaves" for the title of the book and as the punchline of the joke that goes along with it.
#28
Old 04-21-2008, 04:15 PM
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There is only one person whose parents are Ayn Rand and God and that is Stephen Colbert.

I think the serial comma is essential and as electrons replace type the journalistic practice will fall by the wayside as archaic. My complaint is mostly with cadence- even in print I can't help smooshing the penultimate and the ultimate item together if there is not a comma.

And for that I would like to thank my parents, my mom and my dad.

Last edited by stolichnaya; 04-21-2008 at 04:16 PM.
#29
Old 04-21-2008, 06:53 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jodi
Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom Tildrum
As a matter of strict grammar, I think the "veni, vidi, vici" quotation does not implicate the serial comma, because it really ought to use semicolons instead.

"I came; I saw; I conquered."
Thank you, Tom, that's what I was thinking too. Since every clause can stand alone as a sentence, they should be set off by semi-colons, not commas. IMO. Which I'm sure eleventy-six people will now tell me is wrong.

Oh, and one more vote for the serial / Oxford comma. It reduces confusion and adds clarity.
Sorry, Tom and Jodi, but you've spotted a specimen of the cottontail 'Yahbut.'

As we all learned in elementary school, a construction of the sort "I saw my neighbor Fred, he was washing his dog" is a solecism called a comma splice and requires either a semicolon or division into two sentences.

However, language 'rules' are made to be broken where their 'breaking' has a desirable effect.

Very short, two- or three-word main clauses that appear to be distinct short sentences but are run together to produce an effect of crescendo or intensity, are even by the best writers properly joined by commas.

"I sob, I weep, I mourn, I cry in agony" has an immediacy and intensity to it that separating the elements by periods or semicolons would defeat.

Jodi, you may be familiar with the words to the hymn "I sought the Lord" (written by the prolific Anonymous). The third verse has a great example of this: "I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee." Again the sense of building momentum from the three short subject/verb clauses is lost if they are 'properly' separated.

Last edited by Polycarp; 04-21-2008 at 06:56 PM.
#30
Old 04-21-2008, 07:15 PM
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The Difference Between Love and War

Probably the oldest risque schoolboy joke in history:

In bello, veni, vidi, vici; in amore, vidi, vici, veni
--apocryphally attributed to G.J. Caesar
#31
Old 04-21-2008, 07:22 PM
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The Difference Between Love and War

<deleted duplicate post>

Last edited by Rico; 04-21-2008 at 07:47 PM. Reason: delete duplicate post
#32
Old 04-21-2008, 07:41 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
Very short, two- or three-word main clauses that appear to be distinct short sentences but are run together to produce an effect of crescendo or intensity, are even by the best writers properly joined by commas.
Sure, but (or, if you prefer, yeah but) that sort of building intensity is not what you have with "I came; I saw; I conquered." There is no building intensity; there is only three firm statements that each expresses a separate complete thought: "I came. I saw. I conquered." It is the inevitability and matter-of-factness that makes the statement memorable, Rome as steamroller. So even if I were to grant that commas should set off poetic alternate clauses that all essentially express the same thought (which is the case in both your examples), I am not prepared to grant that they are as appropriate for "I came; I saw; I conquered." Which is not to say they are incorrect, just that semi-colons are a better choice, IMO.
#33
Old 04-21-2008, 07:43 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rhythmdvl
So if it's public domain-ish, I can feel free to change it about and stop referring to Ayn Rand? Good.
Well, my copyright guide didn't say one way or the other, nor did my style guide, so I checked with my atlas, and it shrugged.
#34
Old 04-21-2008, 07:50 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jodi
Sure, but (or, if you prefer, yeah but) that sort of building intensity is not what you have with "I came; I saw; I conquered." There is no building intensity; there is only three firm statements that each expresses a separate complete thought: "I came. I saw. I conquered." It is the inevitability and matter-of-factness that makes the statement memorable, Rome as steamroller. So even if I were to grant that commas should set off poetic alternate clauses that all essentially express the same thought (which is the case in both your examples), I am not prepared to grant that they are as appropriate for "I came; I saw; I conquered." Which is not to say they are incorrect, just that semi-colons are a better choice, IMO.
Veni; vidi; punctum concedo.
#35
Old 04-21-2008, 08:52 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jodi
Sure, but (or, if you prefer, yeah but) that sort of building intensity is not what you have with "I came; I saw; I conquered." There is no building intensity; there is only three firm statements that each expresses a separate complete thought: "I came. I saw. I conquered."
There is a building intensity.

I came; I saw; I conquered. ≠ I came. I saw. I conquered.

There is less building intensity than "I came, I saw, I conquered," but it is still there.
#36
Old 04-21-2008, 09:10 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by commasense
The classic example in which its absence is a problem takes the form, "I'd like to thank my parents, God and Madonna." AFAIK, there is no similar problem that can arise from its use.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bosstone
<snip>There are situations where it's better to use the comma. There are no situations where it's better to use no comma.
That's not true. If you read the above-linked Wiki article, you'll find that there are situations in which the serial comma does cause ambiguity that can be reduced by dropping it. The phrase, "I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand and God," without the serial comma makes a lot more sense than "I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and God," unless your mother really is Ayn Rand.

While consistency is important, clarity is more important; and once you've chosen a style, sticking to it provides consistency. I'm pretty comfortable with AP's style guidelines:

Don't use it for singular items, unless there are conjunctions within the items. Use it for complex series of phrases.

I don't have any trouble understanding "red, white and blue." It may look funny to those of us who are used to serial commas, but the lack of it doesn't usually make the phrase difficult to comprehend at all. If it does, that's when you need it.
#37
Old 04-21-2008, 10:06 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TheLoadedDog
"I put on my shirt, my trousers, my socks and and my shoes" might be ok as those two go together as one activity. "I put on my shirt, my trousers and my hat" sounds to me like you were trying to do the last two at the same time. Or something.
I did that after jumping through a window, once. She did not tell me she was married.
#38
Old 04-21-2008, 10:30 PM
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I am extremely bothered by the lack of the Oxford comma. I always use it and find it jarring to read things which do not.
#39
Old 04-21-2008, 10:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Annie-Xmas
I was going to vote "nay," but only because I read the thread title as "Terminal coma? Yay or nay?
Funny, at work I read it as 'coma' and got home and was all, "why didn't I notice this thread on commas?" Maybe I work too hard.

-Eben
#40
Old 04-21-2008, 10:45 PM
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I always use it. I insist on it being there, and it alarms me that it's being used less in official publications. It just looks wrong to me. There are only very rare situations where using it will make a sentence wrong, while many more situations where not using it will make it read wrong. And it's just the right thing to do.
#41
Old 04-22-2008, 09:27 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by OpalCat
I am extremely bothered by the lack of the Oxford comma. I always use it and find it jarring to read things which do not.
...Especially in lists of three or more items.
#42
Old 04-22-2008, 04:05 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp
Very short, two- or three-word main clauses that appear to be distinct short sentences but are run together to produce an effect of crescendo or intensity, are even by the best writers properly joined by commas.
True. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that Strunk and White makes a similar point, allowing a comma splice for phrases presenting a certain poetic rhythm. I think the example it gives is "Man proposes, God disposes."

But to circle back to the OP, I'm still not sure that a comma splice, which is a special case in any event, is a good example by which to evaluate the need for a serial comma.

Last edited by Tom Tildrum; 04-22-2008 at 04:07 PM.
#43
Old 04-22-2008, 05:17 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tom Tildrum
True. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that Strunk and White makes a similar point, allowing a comma splice for phrases presenting a certain poetic rhythm. I think the example it gives is "Man proposes, God disposes."
You remember correctly.

Quote:
If the clauses are very short, and are alike in form, a comma is usually permissible:

Man proposes, God disposes.
The gate swung apart, the bridge fell, the portcullis was drawn up.
#44
Old 04-22-2008, 11:16 PM
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I find it annoying when people don't use the serial comma. I also think that semi-colons are underused in modern writing.
#45
Old 04-22-2008, 11:30 PM
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Agreed; though I think I overcompensate for society as a whole by overusing them when I write.
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