The Superhero Serial Comma

When editing any document for my clients, the one comma-usage error that I encounter more than any other is the lack of a serial comma. While saying serial comma makes me hungry because I always think of Cornflakes when I say it, I still say it – all…the…time. Nothing drives me crazier as an editor and writer than a document, however big or small, that does not use the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.

What’s the big deal? Confusion! Confusion is the deal people. Writing needs to be clear. If a piece of writing is not clear, the message gets lost because people will either be confused or they will stop reading. So how does one little mark clear things up?

The best example is the superhero meme. I know you’re familiar with it. It reads like an Oscar speech: “My heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman.” Do you see the problem here? When just one comma is used between parents and Superman, it suggests a pause for an explanation (this is another comma-use rule and will be addressed in my next post). This sense of expectation, this assumption that the reader is about to receive a more in-depth explanation of the word “parents,” sets up the comma-usage error. When the reader continues to read after the comma, the sentence tells them that the narrator’s parents are Superman and Wonder Woman. Really? Before Justice League, I’d no idea the two had procreated! But I suppose if the narrator that spoke that sentence really was Hunter Prince, then that would make the sentence correct.

But chances are it was just an ordinary human that spoke that sentence. So it needs to be fixed. If we insert the serial comma right before “and,” it reads the way it was intended to read: “My heroes are my parents, Superman, and Wonder Woman.” Ahhh, that’s better. What a relief! Now it reads as a list, a list of the narrator’s heroes that includes their parents, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Look! I just used the serial comma. It’s so easy! If you have a list of three or more items – please, please use a serial comma before the word “and.”

Unless of course you have the misfortune of writing for a newspaper, magazine, or organization that uses CP (Canadian Press) or AP (American Press) style as their guide. In that case, you poor, poor soul, you must not use the serial comma because they do not allow it’s usage. They argue that is for space reasons, and I get it, but I still argue against it. It makes that article mighty hard to read. Perhaps someday they will step into the twenty-first century. And I would love to meet Superman and Wonder Woman’s offspring!

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