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In Praise of The Serial Comma

Published on 12th February 2004

There are parts of life that give us pause, and rightly so. There’s the violence of war, the ambiguity of right and wrong, the tension between worldly success and everyday happiness, and the serial comma.

Oh serial comma, I haven’t forgotten you. Though I toil in newsrooms where you have been banished to obscurity, I refuse to purge you from personal letters, essays, or emails.  

Late at night I sometimes scribble letters to myself, just to see your sideways smile again. 

My AP stylebook has rejected you. “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series,” it coldly commands. The journalist’s bible gives examples: “The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.”

I follow the rules, but without you my thoughts start running together, images so jumbled up in a casserole of words that I can’t tell what any of them were to begin with. I see Tom standing alone, far above Dick or Harry. What true democracy would give him this unfair advantage? I see the Stars and Stripes as a field of red, with just a few touches of white and blue. Are we so unpatriotic that we can’t give each color its due pause?

I need you, serial comma, to delineate my world. You help me with even the most mundane errands. When I go to the store, I buy eggs, milk, cereal, peanut butter, and jelly. Yet you give me the opportunity to choose between a meal of fish and chips, peanut butter and jelly, or fried okra and greens.

If people weren’t so quick to ostracize you, we would never have had to puzzle over a book dedicated to “my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

And I just don’t think Caesar rushed right into conquering without so much as a pause after “I came, I saw.”

But we make vices of all life’s little pauses these days. Stopping for a cup of coffee makes me wonder if I drink too much caffeine.  Breaking for a cigarette means I’m courting cancer. Grabbing a beer in the middle of the workday? Borderline alcoholism. I even feel a twinge of guilt when I turn on a television sitcom. After all, isn’t there something else I should be getting to?

Why are we in such a rush to get to the end of a sentence, or the next item on a to-do list? I eat lunch at my desk, take notes on the subway, and spend taxi rides talking on my cell phone. I’ve lost the punctuation in my day and it’s getting exhausting.

This isn’t about stopping to smell the roses, but just stopping, for a minute, and taking a breath to consider what went before, before we get to what comes after.

There are times when nothing except a run-on sentence will capture the way my thoughts keep coming like fire engines trying to catch up with a blaze and then a period can’t stop me and a semicolon won’t arrest me and a comma is like a butterfly easily pushed off course by the gusts of my inspiration.

But that is not an everyday occurrence. More often, I’m desperate for a pause. And I’m tired of wearing myself out by pushing all the different parts of my life on top of each other.

Though I brush my teeth while I dress and dress while I brush my hair, I am going to give my sentences some room to breathe.  

I am keeping the serial comma. I am standing up for pauses. And I  will start right now by sitting back, relaxing, and … .