The serial comma: controversial, scholarly and unCanadian

In the summer of 2011, news emerged from Oxford University that was to instantly inflame the passions of grammar geeks and “word nerds” across the English-speaking world. Oxford University, the news ran, had decided to ditch the punctuation mark that bears its name – the Oxford comma, or, as it is more commonly known in North America, the serial comma.

“Are you people insane?” tweeted one serial comma enthusiast. “The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”

It turns out the news reports had not been entirely accurate; the new ruling against the use of the serial comma had come out of Oxford University’s PR department—not the prestigious and standard-setting Oxford University Press. But the controversy that followed the misleading reports brought a bit of international attention to a question that writers everywhere have to grapple with: use it or lose it?

What’s the serial comma anyways?

For the uninitiated, the serial comma is the comma that is used (or not used) before a conjunction like “and” or “or” just before the last item in a list of three or more – it’s the last comma, for example, in the phrase, “knives, spoons, and forks.”

While world opinion may be divided about whether or not to use the serial comma, Ext. Marketing Inc. is not: we do not use it.

The reason is simple: in marketing communications, you want your copy to stand out for the right reasons – for how powerfully it gets a message across, not because the punctuation looks weird. And for Canadian audiences, a serial comma is likely to look weird.

In this country, leaving out the serial comma is the norm, spelled out, for example, in the Canadian Press Style Guide, the main standard of style for Canadian journalists, not to mention communications firms and departments. Exceptions are rare, and are mostly confined to academic publishers.

The serial semicolon

Admittedly, leaving out the comma can lead to ambiguity. If the reader doesn’t know we’re following the leave-out-the-last-comma rule, how does he or she know that “Smith and Doe, Wal-Mart, Ford and Jones” is a list of four – not three – companies? The solution is to improvise, using a perfectly acceptable substitute: the semicolon, thus: “Smith and Doe; Wal-Mart; Ford; and Jones.”

The serial semicolon has escaped the controversy surrounding the comma, and is used even in Canada, often to clear up this very type of confusion. For this lack of controversy, Canadian writers can be thankful.

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