Why the Serial comma should be considered non-optional

Why the Serial comma should be considered non-optional

While my grasp of proper grammar may be somewhat limited, one thing I do understand well is logic. Unfortunately, the fact that people tend to have a surprisingly poor grasp of basic logic may undermine the following argument, but here goes anyway.

Many of you have been taught that using a comma before the last item in a series (the “Serial” or “Oxford” comma) is optional, while this is technically true the single keystroke, or swipe of a pen, that it saves you is guaranteed to cause problems down the road.

Don’t believe me? I have a pretty cool toaster. It will toast your bread, and poach, or hard boil, your eggs at the same time. Whilst standing over it this morning I happened to read one of the little instructional stickers that told me I could “Use cancel button to end all functions (toast, egg and egg and toast).”

Now, while technically correct there are a number of problems with this sentence. The first, and most obvious, being that it’s not at all clear where the second comma is supposed to go. Yes, I can here many of you complaining now that it’s not hard to figure out, but sometimes it is, as I’ll demonstrate in a moment, and even if it isn’t you shouldn’t force your readers to “figure out” what you were trying to say. You should say it in a way that doesn’t require deciphering. Is it toast, egg and egg, and toast? You generally have to assume the comma before the last “and.” And what about the fact that this can actually hard-boil (hard steam?) up to four eggs at a time? “Egg and egg” is a logical possibility, as is “egg and egg and egg and egg”.

The second problem is that the usage of the comma is a bit overloaded here. We’re not just it to indicate a pause, we’re also using it to delimit the items in a list. Verbally we do this with pauses, so it the comma is a sensible choice to use, but many people leave out commas when writing that they would normally include in their speech. So, the first comma in any three item list with only one comma could just be interpreted as a pause and not a list delimiter.

As promised, here’s a real world example where you can’t “figure out” the correct meaning: “Go to the store and buy milk, eggs, broccoli, macaroni and cheese.”

How many items do I expect you to return with? Is macaroni and cheese one item or two?

The Serial comma should never be considered optional. Plus, you’d use it if you were speaking so you should use it when writing if you want to convey the same thing.

P.P. Check out the toaster, but if you do get one, you must keep a can of PAM nearby. The little egg-poachey cup-thing isn’t nearly as non-stick as it looks. I’d also recommend inserting a nice slice of medium to sharp cheddar in between the bread and eggs. Mmmm nom nom nom.

P.P.S. Lots of instructional comma goodness here.

P.P.P.S Yes, I realize the statements here put me at odds with rule #9 on the page linked above. Fuck them. ;) I believe that the final sentence of rule #9 proves that the comma is appropriate there.