A Comma Too Far

As there are often discussions about grammar in the comments, I thought I’d throw out one of my favorite rules, inviolate to me, and let you guys duke it out:

The serial comma (also known as the series commaOxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (usually and oror, sometimes nor) preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, a list of three countries can be punctuated as either “Portugal, Spain, and France” (with the serial comma) or as “Portugal, Spain and France” (without the serial comma).[1][2][3]

Opinions vary among writers and editors on the usage or avoidance of the serial comma. In American English it is standard in most non-journalistic writing, which typically follows the Chicago Manual of Style. Journalists, however, usually follow the Associated Press Style Guide, which advises against it. It is less often used in British English.[4][5] In many languages (e.g. French,[6] German,[7] Italian,[8] Polish,[9] Spanish[10]) the serial comma is not the norm – it may even go against punctuation rules – but it may be recommended in some cases to avoid ambiguity or to aid prosody.

Like Strunk and White before me, it was, is, and always shall be “red, white, and blue.”


Thats too easy; when should one use “which” or “that,” as in, “the bullet that hit his throat” or “the bullet which hit his throat?”

Here is a favorite of mine; I believe it is perfectly proper to say “between you, me, and the lamppost,” or “the contract between A, B, C, and D” (note the Harvard comma there). I have known lawyers who insist its an agreement “among” more than two people, but they were all pedantic morons.

@Prommie: I heard once that, if you could replace “which” with “that”, do so. So I do – it’s called a “which” hunt.

my favorite is “for god sakes”.
I hate this. if you are going to use the phrase it would be “for gods sake” would it not?

well that and “the fact of the matter is, is that blah blah blah . . .”

what he hell can you say about Robertson and Limpbaugh? there was a time that saying something like either of them said about Haiti would get you banned from polite conversation. the fact of the matter is is that the world seems to sink deeper into the toilet every day. fer god sakes.

I am home sick with a nasty virus but I was lonely.


For some reason I always match that to tense, i.e. “the bullet that is hitting his throat”, “the bullet that will hit his throat”; but “the bullet which was hitting his throat”, “the bullet which had hit his throat”. Probably not a rule, tho.

Incidentally, in advertising grammar, you never use the Harvard comma. Advertising grammar makes things as simple as possible, though, which is why articles in most movie titles are capitalized, even though it is not correct to do so.

Ooh, ooh, and I hate the misuse of “in a moment” and “momentarily”. They don’t mean the same thing, people.

Team Serial Comma and Team Which Hunt here.

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: What about people who write “here, here” when the correct cheer/Amen sister spelling is “hear hear”?


Doesn’t anyone else watch Parliament on C-SPAN to know it’s short for “hear him, hear him”?


/slinks away after revealing yet more nerdiness

@Capt Howdy: Me too – home w/ bronchitis and some sort of virus. Go the doctor if you haven’t – I got me some reeeel powerful antibiotics.

But what is your view on the serial comma?

I always thought “Eats shoots and leaves” to be trite. A comma has its place, sometimes even before a conjunction. But, as in all things English, it depends.


Darling, we seem to be at odds today, but the actual cry is “Hear Here!”, I think. Must look it up….

Add: I was wrong! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hear,_hear


I never knew such a thing existed. it would never have occurred to me to write “red, white, and blue”. probably my advertising background.

yeah I just got back from the doctor. its a weird kind of virus. it took a long time to really start feeling sick. I mentioned to a co worker last friday that I felt like I was “getting sick”. but I really felt like that on thursday. I felt that way all weekend and on monday I came in because
it was the last day of the milestone and I had decided that I had some minor bug and it would go away eventually.
by the end of the day monday I was really feeling shitty and by tuesday I had what was maybe the sorest throat I have ever had. the doctor says that starting today, probably, it will move from my head to my chest and that I will feel crappy at least through the weekend.

helluva cold. not like any I ever had. but not officially the “flu” he said.

Example: “Every Tom, Dick and Harry can go fuck himself.” A terminal comma undermines the spirit of the invective.

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: Firesign Theatre:

Hear, hear!

Where, where?

There, there!

And with apologies to midwest Stinquers, Chicago sucks.

Count me in on AP style. Besides, commas are the moodiest of punctuation marks. They frequently cut themselves (thank you, FakeAPStylebook!). Also, I hereby call for the increased use of the interrobang.

@blogenfreude: The pinheaded convoluted manual that has no place outside of academic papers.

Me, I mix AP with a dash of New Yorker. I love spelling out big numbers.

the location? the movie? the band?

I am in central IL about one hour south of Chicago and I heartily agree. it sucks. it was above freezing for about 5 minutes today for the first time in, well, in memory.

@nojo: I recall that in high school, Miss Breault made us use Turabian for our senior papers. I still have nightmares.

@Capt Howdy: the band?

After their first few albums, yes. Gawd, the late Seventies were a bitch.

Love the serial comma. Hate the use of “grow” in the phrase “grow the economy.” You grow hair and you grow vegetables; you don’t “grow” GDP. Sarah Palin, while not the only offender (I’m looking at you, Mr. President), is certainly the worst.

@blogenfreude: I like the rule which says, when using “that” and “which” as relative pronouns, use “that” when followed by a defining relative clause, and use “which” when it will be followed by a non-defining relative clause. Less technically, “that” is used to specify one of something from among a defined set of something, “which” is used to give a reason, or add a new fact, or anything other then to specify or define the antecedent.

@mellbell: This reminds me why as much as I hate impact as a verb, I have to be respectful of linguistic evolution: Contact as a verb was similarly condemned in the nineteenth (spell it out, New Yorker) century.

You can keep Strunk & White. I’m sticking with Mencken.

OT – for you NYC-area Stinquers – Tekserve has a recyling event this weekend – my chance to get rid of my old laptops, if I feel up to it.


So in your example it would be “…the bullet which hit his neck shattered his spine” and “…out of all these bullets, the bullet that hit his neck was the most important” .

doesnt being sick suck? what I hate most in the world is being able to be home and not feeling like smoking pot.

back to the sofa and the snuggie.

@nojo: I prefer AP too, but give me Chicago any day for looking something up. I can never, ever find what I’m looking for in the damn alphabetized AP! And I’m definitely on Team Serial Comma. Why be stingy with a little comma when it can add much-needed clarity? I’ve heard a typological urban legend that the final comma was first omitted to save typesetters a whole extra character’s work when setting the page. I tried to do some digging on it once, but couldn’t find a legit source.

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: Darling, I confess that I’m at odds with you on all things grammatical today too…but I still adore you.

@Capt Howdy: If you are ever in the city and want to grab a drink with the Chicago Stinquers, say the word!

@flippin eck:
definitely do that. how many chicago stinkers are there?

@mellbell: I don’t like people verbizing nouns (and sometimes even propositions) and nouning their verbs. Nope, I don’t like ’em.

@Tommmcatt Say Relax:
oh I so totally agree. when I do not feel up to smoking pot you know I am really sick.

The AP thing explains why my boss, who taught journalism, takes out the serial commas I can’t stop myself from using. In fact, there’s a big ugly, orange (my least favorite color) copy of the despised Chicago Manual (provided by him) on my desk.
I dislike the rampant replacement of “which” with “that”. Sometimes a little “which” is called for.
@Prommie: @Capt Howdy: I see you two are opposed to the use of the apostrophe in contractions and possessives. Edgy.

@flippin eck:

Well, there’s something we can agree on… Je t’adore, aussi, ma chou.

@flippin eck: In the end, my style is esoteric, even anachronistic — I’ve always loved the old tradition of periods after headlines or titles, and I take an indecent pleasure in semicolons. Not to mention my incessant use of the royal We, which kicks my voice into a different register.

Oh, and “dude”? Sheer ironic affectation.

Which reminds me: I never can settle on quotation terminal punctuation. Sometimes I like innies, sometimes outies.

@Mistress Cynica:

I like Lewis Carroll’s contractions….

[C]ritics have objected to certain innovations in spelling, such as “ca’n’t”, “wo’n’t”, “traveler.” [As opposed to what used to be traveller.] In reply, I can only plead my firm conviction that the popular usage is wrong. As to “ca’n’t”, it will not be disputed that, in all other words ending in “n’t”, these letters are an abbreviation of “not”; and it is surely absurd to suppose that, in this solitary instance, “not” is represented by “’t”! In fact, “can’t” is the proper abbreviation for “can it”, just as “is’t” is for “is it”.

Again, in “won’t”, the first apostrophe is needed, because the word “would” is here abridged to “wo”: but I hold it proper to spell “don’t” with only one apostrophe, because the word “do” is here complete. As to such words as “traveler”, I hold the correct principle to be, to double the consonant when the accent falls on that syllable; otherwise leave it single. This rule is observed in most cases (e.g. we double the “r” in “preferred”, but leave it single in “offered”), so that I am only extending, to other cases, a existing rule. I admit, however, that I do not spell “parallel” as the rule would have it; but here we are constrained, by the etymology, to insert the double “l”

-Lewis Carroll, Preface to Sylvie & Bruno Continued

@Mistress Cynica:
about the apostrophe, no. just lazy.
just taking advantage of the more lenient “internet” rules. but, I do hate it when people use numbers and caps (what R U up 2) when not using a cell phone.

@Mistress Cynica: Was it the girl in True Grit who never spoke in contractions, or the girl in Mad’s parody of True Grit?

@nojo: I think anyone who writes with regularity (outside of frequent texting) develops his or her own style, which is great. I would like to think mine could be described as Clarity Above All…With Some Leeway for Panache. Also, I highly recommend that your tweet tomorrow be: I take an indecent pleasure in semicolons.

@flippin eck: If the typesetting legend isn’t true, it should be — much of AP style evolved to save space, if not time.

Any journos here remember counting characters in headlines? No? I’m old.

@flippin eck: I’ll have to convert that to We take… House style.

it was the cave men in Emmerich’s 10,000 BC.
that always cracked me up. they are cave men but the dont use contractions. while I accept the probable truth of it it still sounds silly.

@Capt Howdy: Chicago Bureau, Homofascist, and I all live within a few blocks of each other on the north side of the city. Chicago Bureau can be a little elusive IRL, but HF and I are nearly always up for a drink.

The Joy of New Yorker Anachronisms, as illustrated by Pauline Kael’s two-word review of Tootsie:

“Marvellous fun.”

@Prommie: One of my previous computers was named — no, not Banana — Zygorthian Raider.

just flashed of a wonderful memory of NYC on a day I went into the Copacabana with my friend Don to get his paycheck. we walked into the office and there was Dustin Hoffman in drag. he had to move his fishnet clad gams out of the way so Don could get into the drawer to get his check.

@nojo: I’m always trying to use semicolons more. And I remember counting characters in the headline at my college newspaper.

With regard to the royal we, there was a terrific letter in this week’s Economist (yes, I subscribe to it and The New Yorker — I must support magazines that routinely use the word “fuck” in their articles, not to mention I love the New Yorker umlauts on words like cooperate, though the use of “Sir” for Economist LTEs annoys the fuck out of me):

SIR – Having read your article about difficult languages I scoff at Tuyuca and Kwaio for having only two words for “we”, [SFL: Note British use of outtie punctuation] inclusive and exclusive. In English we have three: the regular we meaning you and I, as in “we had dinner together”; the royal we meaning I, as in “we are not amused”; and the marital we meaning you, as in “we need to take out the garbage.”
New Orleans

on a completely different subject this:

Citing ‘obscene’ bonuses, Obama to tax banks
‘We want our money back and we’re going to get it,’ president says


seems sort of cool to me. am I being naive?

@mellbell: Out here, we have “cattle growers.” WTF?

@SanFranLefty: I like TNY’s “focussed” and was often roundly criticized for using it.

this has been fun. thanks for the interlude but I really must sink back into a coma now.

c ya

@nojo: My favorite strip of all was Calvin’s father explaining how the world was in fact black and white prior to 1945, when Kodak invented color. I beleive that when Calvin asked what about color pictures dating from before 1945, dad explained that they turned color along with the rest of the world in 1945, because they were color pictures of the black and white world all along.

@Capt Howdy: I should have started with the previous line, so you could finish. But I could not remember if it was “on” the perimeter, or “in” the perimeter.

@SanFranLefty: Wait — double inverted commas in the Economist letter? Where are their standards?

@SanFranLefty: Remember, W’s count two, or the backshop will slap you upside the head.

@nojo: @Capt Howdy: And – if I remember correctly – all the characters in All the King’s Men, even the ones with no book larnin’.

@SanFranLefty: I know … his work is so impressive, but there he is. Geeze – couldn’t he have just sought out hookers like Vitter and my former governor? Like maybe a 22 year old? It’s icky, but it’s legal (only as to age, of course) – or maybe I should say “less illegal.”

@blogenfreude: How fucking dumb was he? People should know by now that 99.999% of the 15-year-old girls on the Internet are cops.


We’ve been through this, but I think stings like that are absolutely unconscionable. There was no crime committed there.

@SanFranLefty: It’s hard for me to judge – all of my sex has been of the legal variety. But I wonder – if you have a particular “need” – for lack of a better word – how much does it cloud your judgment? We make fun of Bob Allen – but wasn’t there a better way to give a blowjob than a PUBLIC PARK? And Vitter – couldn’t he have found a discreet non-hooker woman? Similarly Larry Craig – maybe an escort service known for its discretion? And Ensign – schtupping a staffer who’s also your best friend’s wife – what could POSSIBLY go wrong? I’d like to think I’d make the “right” choice faced with each situation, but who knows? Desire does weird things to you.

@SanFranLefty: In this house, “someone” means the male spouse; i.e. “someone needs to hang that picture.”

@flippin eck: My daughter, an English major, has a semi-colon tattooed over one hipbone and an exclamation point over the other.

Yo. Sup?

Always a serial comma in a list bit not in a phrase; eg. ‘Red, yellow, and green’ but ‘Eat shit and die’.

We don’t use commas enough; nor semi-colons; nor hyphens.

No grammar rule more than 5 years old is valid.

Style books suck bricks through tennis raquets. I’m an Onions man myself and I love Garner’s Modern American Usage. And BTW, what is this obsession with using ‘proven’ for ‘proved’? When did that happen, yo?

Never use quaint spellings (raquets for rackets) even when necessary: it implies a lack in the locals.

I despise the use of absent to mean, without. Legal jargon. (see how I used that comma? I know) Also the habit of making every sentence be a paragraph. Also the You-Are-There style of magazine writing.

There is a vast difference between the language we speak and the language we write. I write speak. Poetry is also written in Speak. Good poetry, like good dialogue (see earlier note re. fancy spelling) fills the mouth:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to but they do,

Thank you, Phillip Larkin. The rhythms and rhymes in the second line are especially lovely. Best parenthesis? (Picnic. Lightning) Never trust the English.

I am home. Musical theatre is safe.

@Dodgerblue: Make that two semicolons, and you have the grammar-geek equivalent of f-hole tattoos.

God, I love callbacks.

@Benedick: Good poetry, like good dialogue, fills the mouth

I used to hang out with poetry geeks, and they taught me that very thing. My love of Whitman comes from reciting him aloud.

It’s an entirely different experience when spoken.

One caveat: Garrison Keillor must never, under any circumstance, be allowed to read poetry.

@nojo: @Dodgerblue: Ooo, tempting tat idea! And not quite as objectifying as the f-holes. The body as a sentence? It could work.

@Benedick: Re: Keillor–heh. Did I mention I saw him on the sidewalk in St. Paul last summer? He crossed the street to avoid me and my friend. Douche.


On a different note, did you ever write a play called Souviners or something like that?

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: Yes. Souvenir – the noun used without article to push the meaning into a more active place.

@Benedick: There’s a wine term for that — mouth feel? Which is also a setup line for another comment.

@Benedick: I have Garner’s ADMAU meself – invaluable.
@Benedick: Over the years he has annoyed me more and more … I remember the 80s, sitting in a wooden hot tub with my hippie girlfriend listening to A Prairie Home Companion, but those evenings have disappeared in the mist. Everything that comes after the Brandenburg Concerto intro is offal.

@Benedick: Intimidating, darling.

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: Souvenir is a thing of beauty. HF and I saw it here recently. Absolutely go see it if it plays somewhere near you.

@flippin eck: Intimidating! Ooooooohhh!

And thanks for the compliment.


It is playing at the playhouse by my work.

Looks like I have something to do this weekend after all!


You do get your buck-fifty on something like that don’t you?

@Tommmcatt Say Relax: Darling, 8% of gross. However, the original producer takes 10% of my cut. Then the licensing company splits 10% with the original agent. Then I pay another 5% in voluntary splits to others involved. What is left I convert straight to vodka and stash under the house where the bunnies live. Life is good.

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