Wednesday, February 02, 2005

This Post Is Dedicated To My Parents, Ayn Rand And God

Discriminations has a very interesting piece on the use of the "serial" comma. What they take a look at is the fact the omission of the serial comma often causes confusion in what would otherwise be well written sentences.

I noticed a long time ago that the omission of the "serial comma" is also a constant problem with our students' writing. No matter how many times that its usage is modeled by us, or how many written exercises that we do, many of our junior high school students don't seem to "get it." I suspect that they also don't "get it" before they graduate high school.

For those that might be a decade (or more) removed from their grammar lessons, take a look at how the meaning of these two sentences is changed by the omission of that pesky little punctuation mark:
  • The samples of soil in the winning science exhibit included clay, loam, coarse sand and gravel. (The number of samples is unclear. Some may conclude that there were three and others four.)

Now take a look at the same sentence, with a comma added before the word and:

  • The samples of soil in the winning science exhibit included clay, loam, coarse sand, and gravel. (The number of samples listed is clear; there are four.)

Discriminations cites several examples of confusing "serial comma omission" from that paragon of journalistic expertise The New York Times. But, as Discriminations points out, The Times' own style manual almost has a rule that seems to offer quite a bit of latitude:

In general, do not use a comma before and in a series unless the other elements of the series are separated by semicolons.
Most languages, such as Spanish and French, have semi-official "academies" that regularly meet for the purpose of standardizing each language's written usage.

Curiously, English has no universally-accepted governing body or official manual of style.

Perhaps the time has come to create one.

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