Commas the Chicago Way: The Serial Comma. Where People Throw Down
Recently, I sent an email to client where I delicately probed his feelings about the serial comma. He’d written a 15,000-word workbook where he didn’t use the serial comma 95% of the time. But then there was that 5% where he did.
I explained that the style guide I defaulted to used the serial comma. I explained that it was also called the Oxford comma. I gave him examples of the serial comma. I gave him his stats breakdown of serial comma/not-serial comma usage. And then I asked him to decide.
He had never thought of it before and was fine with whatever I wanted to do.
Well then, this is a great example of why people hire copyeditors, so they can use their brainpower on something else.
But a lot of people do care about the serial/Oxford comma. Googling “Oxford comma controversy” will give you 675,000 results and a bunch of fun images, including one that refers to the Oxford Comma as the Kanye West of Punctuation.
Vampire Weekend has even weighed in! They also don’t care. Enough to use profanity. For some indie band stylings that discuss their feelings about the serial comma, look up their song “Oxford Comma.”
But if you are reading this, you probably do care about the Oxford comma! And even though the AP Stylebook only says to use them when they are necessary, the Chicago Manual of Style “strongly recommends this widely practice usage” in 6.19.
6.19 Serial commas
I like the term serial comma, because its name paints a clear picture. When you’re listing a series of things, you aren’t using bullet points, and you use a comma joining the elements together. The element that comes before the article? It needs a comma too!
Greta Gerwig has received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Achievement in Directing, and Best Original Screenplay.
The reason Chicago likes that last comma is that it prevents ambiguity.
They even want it there when you have a sentence with a last item that uses and.
Elle Fanning has appeared in Trumbo, Super 8, and Ginger and Rosa.
Things change when the series comes at the beginning. In that case, you should only use the comma if the syntax requires it.
Dancing, singing, and acting are the three things that are needed to be considered triple threat.
Winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony, as hard as those things are, is what’s required to have the designation of EGOT.
Chicago also says that the phrase as well as cannot be substituted for and in a series. The example they give has them using and first and then as well as. They give no reason for this, so I suspect it’s just what they like best.
Finally, if your sentence has the flavor of an excited eight-year-old and each item is joined by a conjunction, you don’t need commas at all, unless things get confusing without them.
Do you want to watch Dunkirk or Intersteller or Inception or Memento for our Christopher Nolan movie tonight?
6.20 Commas with “etc.” And “et al.”
Chicago takes a breather from the serial comma, but don’t worry, it will be back in 6.21.
First of all, Chicago prefers that etc. be used only in parenthesis. But if you are using any words that mean and so forth or et cetera, a comma comes before them. But! A comma only follows them if it’s required by surrounding text.
Nora Ephron’s legacy includes, screenwriting, directing, authoring novels, articles and the like, and producing a number movies.
And we’re back to the serial comma!
If you’ve got an ampersand—which are most often used in company names, but also movie and book titles—and you also need to use a serial comma, there is no comma placed before the ampersand. Chicago gives no reason, but I’m assuming it’s because it looks bad.
Yours, Mine & Ours is a 1968 movie that was remade in 2005.
And that’s the serial comma world.
Commas the Chicago Way is a multi-part series. Find the first installment here.