Cereal, Comma, and Robert Duvall

Not that kind of cereal, but the serial comma.

A great example (via Making Light) of what can happen when you drop the serial comma from a sentence:

For those who don’t like to squint at small print, the newspaper caption to the above photograph reads as follows:

Merle Haggard: The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

The serial comma is so named for its function as the final separator of items listed in a series. Why it’s also referred to as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, I don’t know. The highly respected grammarian, Bryan Garner, recommends always including the final comma (even if journalists, for purposes of space-saving, often drop it). His rationale (p. 676 of the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage ):

[I]t’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will . . .

But that never  is a bit controversial. Wikipedia, for example, claims the following:

In some circumstances the serial-comma convention can introduce ambiguity. An example would be a list reading:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

The serial comma after Ayn Rand creates ambiguity about the writer’s mother, leaving it unclear whether this is a list of three people – (1) my mother, (2) Ayn Rand, (3) God – or two – (1) my mother, who is Ayn Rand, (2) God. In this case, the writer might be best to reorder the sentence, and avoid the problem entirely.

Without a serial comma this would read:

To my mother, Ayn Rand and God

– which is ambiguous only if the reader is prepared to accept the unlikely interpretation “My mother, who is both Ayn Rand and God”.

But I find this Wikipedia example inane, and am with Garner. So long as we treat the serial comma for what it is—the last divider of a series of items in a sentence—where’s the confusion? Why would there be any if you know the serial comma’s function? And dropping the serial comma from the Ayn Rand sentence does nothing to assist clarity in the way that the Wikipedia writer supposes. It only adds additional possibilities for ambiguity (insofar as there is any in the first place, which I would argue there is not if the serial comma is present).

And to retain the syntax, sense, and clarity that the Wikipedia writer desires, I would suggest a sentence like this (as an example):

I dedicate this book to the following: my father, Fred Astaire; my mother, Ayn Rand; and God.

Or, if Fred Astaire is not one of your parents, but Ayn Rand is:

To my mother, Ayn Rand; and God.

See how easy that was?

__________

One additional thought about this. The “To my mother, Ayn Rand and God” example actually is not the best order in which to demonstrate the confusion that adheres to dropping the serial comma. The example is better illustrated in this order:

To Ayn Rand, my mother and God.

This makes the Ayn Rand devotee akin to Thomas after touching the resurrected Jesus’s wounds when he said, “My lord and my God!” Thomas, had he ever written a book and attached a dedication to it, might have dropped the serial comma without confusion:

To Jesus, my Lord and my God.

For the rest of us, however, the serial comma is wisely retained (unless we actually do mean something otherwise than a list of items):

To Ram Das, my guru and friend.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to Cereal, Comma, and Robert Duvall

  1. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi-

    A significant part of my work involved writing reports which might later be used in civil litigation. They had to be unambiguous, so I knew the importance of commas.

    I also used semi-colons (although they seemed to be out of fashion); but would not have thought to apply them as you do in your example. Neat! (Almost worth coming out of retirement in the hopes of finding an opportunity to do so!)

    -Colin

  2. I like these grammar and punctuation posts. I hated this stuff in school much later in life, in working in with contracts, I get why it matters. In school it just felt like a bunch of arbitrary rules.

    • santitafarella says:

      One thing I like about grammar is that it adheres to rationality and logic (or ought to). If you ask whether a sentence makes logical sense in its word order (syntax) and punctuation—and whether it could make still more logical sense in some other formulation—then grammar becomes a practice in rationality and elegance. For example, it is standard American usage to place a list of short story titles like this: “Bartleby the Scrivener,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “Young Goodman Brown.” It saves some space, but, strictly speaking, there are no commas in these titles and so I prefer the British convention: “Bartleby the Scrivener”, “The Story of an Hour”, and “Young Goodman Brown”. I like the British convention because it is more attentive to precision. Another thing I find interesting about grammar is the differences that must be split between strict rationality (as in the British convention above) and pragmatism (saving a bit of space on the page, as in the American convention of crunching things together). In other words, grammar is a yin-yang debate about strict rationality and idealism vs. pragmatism and sheepishly following the conventions of others, as is all of life. Grammar is a little world that reflects the big world: how prickly and rational will you be? How much will you notice and how much will you gloss over in the interest of time? Who’s your audience? And do you care?

      —Santi

  3. Pingback: Cereal, Comma, and Robert Duvall (via Prometheus Unbound) « Brucetheeconomist's Blog

  4. Pingback: Cereal, Comma, and Robert Duvall | avcbasicskillsblog

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