Losing the Serial Comma Battle:

A random walk through yesterday’s NY Times pulled up the following:

In a story about the Fox v. FCC decision from the Second Circuit, page B1:
“The decision, which many constitutional scholars expect to be appealed to the Supreme Court, stems from a challenge by Fox, CBS and other broadcasters to the FCC’s decision in 2004 . . .”

From Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column, p A27
“Some mix of fear, love, hopelessness and shattered self-esteem keep her from trying to run away. . . . ”

From a story in Sports on the All-Star Game, page B14:
“The National League’s motivation might have stemmed from . . . . the folksy, funny and almost fiery pep talk that [Charlie] Manuel gave before the game . . .”

I’ve been noticing, the last year or so, the absence of that serial comma — the one that should precede the final item within the list — with increasing frequency, and it’s pretty clear that the Times Style Guide must consider it optional. It is becoming harder and harder to insist upon its use, given that it is so frequently omitted (even in “good writing”).

That’s unfortunate. I know the arguments for and against the Rule, but I consider one of them dispositive in its favor: use of the serial comma expands the possibilities for communicating nuance of meaning, and is therefore an unmitigated Good Thing. The classic illustration is this:

(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep”

In the first edition of Frost’s Collected Poems, that line (from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) was printed as in (a), but it was corrected in subsequent editions. The point is that the two lines have different meanings — in the first, the woods are lovely; “dark and deep” then becomes a descriptor or illustration of that loveliness. In the second, the woods have three separate characteristics: they’re lovely, they’re dark, and they’re deep. (Was Charlie Manuel’s pep talk folksy, as illustrated by its funniness and fiery-ness? Or was it funny, folksy, and fiery?) If we lose the serial comma rule, we won’t be able to distinguish between the two meanings when we encounter lines with (or without) the comma; it’ll just be random, a matter of whim and fancy, on the order of whether you form the possessive for “James” as James’ or James’s, or whether you do or don’t capitalize prepositions that appear in the middle of titles, incapable of carrying any semantic weight. A shame, if that happens.

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