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  • John M Donovan

And Now, a Message from the Serial Comma Promotion Board

In my day job as an advertising copywriter, I’ve done a lot of mingling with PR writers who refuse to use the serial comma. I’ve also tried to encourage them to throw off the yoke of their AP Stylebooks and start using it in press releases and news articles.

Their responses, by and large, have been pretty consistent. They say the editors will just take out the serial comma anyway, and they don’t want to get on the editors’ bad side. They don’t want to make it look like they don’t know what the editors want.

So with that in mind I’m going to make the same exhortation to all those editors out there: Do it. Start using the serial comma. You know you want to. You know it makes sense.

I once asked a PR guru why journalism—a profession whose foundation is built on efficient written communication (communication being the key word)—doles out the serial comma only grudgingly, why it pushes the “use it only to avoid confusion” rule to its absolute limit. He told me they do it to save space.

I looked at him blankly and said he must be kidding.

“No, that’s why,” he said. “Space is at a premium, so they figure the serial comma is expendable.”

I kept staring blankly until I realized he’d been gone for five minutes, then I had to go chase him down. “These are people who abbreviate California with five letters,” I said. “They’re worried about conserving space?”

“I’m just telling you what I know.”

“What do they do with the space they save? Put out an extra magazine at the end of the year?”

Right about then is when he faked appendicitis and ended the conversation, but it got me thinking: Here we have a punctuation mark that clarifies the meaning of any sentence it’s in, and of all the things taking up space in a magazine, that’s what people have decided to leave out. Why stop there? Why not take off the silent E at the end of words? Why not switch over to phonetic spelling? Hell, you could put out a magazine in shorthand and save enough space to add a humor column, two in-depth interviews, and Uncle Fuzzy’s Fun Page for Kids.

I want to know who thought it would be a good idea to sacrifice clarity for space considerations. I want to know why some editor didn’t take a stand way back when and eliminate those big old capital letters at the beginning of stories instead.

“Looks like we’re short on space this issue, Chief—we might have to eliminate the serial comma.”

“Are you insane? Our readers deserve sentences that make sense! Eliminate the serial comma and you do so at your peril! Plus, you’re fired.”

Just for fun, I went through a typical trade publication the other day and circled all the sentences that needed serial commas but didn’t have them, then typed out the corresponding number of commas. You needed a micrometer to measure them, and if I’d had a micrometer I would have.

Anyway. Enough about editors and PR writers. Let’s talk about me. The rule I follow is simple: Your meaning will never be misconstrued if you always use the serial comma.

Unless it’s misconstrued for some other reason, but that’s neither here nor there.

In 35 years of professional copywriting I’ve run across countless clients who couldn’t write a coherent sentence at gunpoint—and yet believed they were some sort of punctuation authority because they remembered (incorrectly, it turns out) a rule from their junior high English class that says you don’t put a comma before the “and.” The worst offender was a man I’ll identify here, with apologies to Aaron Copland, only as The Comma Man.

The year was 1992. The Comma Man worked for a Fortune 500 company that had hired the agency I worked for to do its annual report. This was a big deal for us. We’d won this client’s business away from a Chicago agency, so we took extra care to make sure everything we did was first-class. The annual report was a 32-page four-color document that would be read by hundreds of shareholders and thrown away by tens of thousands more, so we knew it had to be good.

And it was. It was as good as a conservative corporate piece of propaganda can be. My copy covered the highlights of the previous year and discussed what was on tap for the future, and did it all without getting bogged down in corporate-speak. Our client contact approved the copy, his boss approved the copy, and the CEO of the company approved the copy. Everything was cool until the CEO decided to bring in the Comma Man.

I don’t think anyone at the agency had ever heard the Comma Man’s name before, so we had no idea why the CEO would approve the copy and then send it to someone farther down the org chart. “Hey, Charlie, when you’re through buffing the floor, give this annual report the once-over, will you?” Eventually word got back to us that when it came to written communication, the CEO had always put his trust in the Comma Man.

Now, the Comma Man was about 115 years old, which didn’t bode well for my copy. I thought it was entirely possible that he’d add King James-style endings on all the verbs. “Verily, as first-quarter profits trendeth upward…”

But if he’d done that, at least you could still discern the meanings of the sentences. What he did was far more insidious: He took out all the serial commas. Every one of them. It didn’t matter if the series was simple or complex, didn’t matter if a reader would have had to slog through and read the sentence over and over to discern the meaning: The Comma Man was determined to honor the memory of his English teacher in that little one-room schoolhouse on the Illinois prairie and follow a rule she never taught him.

“You know,” I said to my boss, “this copy’s hard to read and some of the sentences are ambiguous now.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.” Which, loosely translated, means They’re paying the bills.

It’d be bad enough if the story ended there. It’d be a cautionary tale about empty suits who need real work to do instead of trying to improve on professional writing. But alas, when it was time to start on the 1993 annual report, the Comma Man jumped out of the bushes early and sent word that when we submitted our first draft of copy, he didn’t want to see any commas in it.

I had to make sure I’d heard my boss right. “No commas?” I said. “Not even in a sentence like ‘In 1992, we really messed up the annual report’?”

“No commas,” he said. Which also means They’re paying the bills. Apparently the Comma Man thought we needed a lesson in punctuation, and that he was just the codger to teach it.

So, after finishing my draft of the ’93 report, I hit the old Command-H and, with a single keystroke, deleted every single comma in my copy. There were no serial commas. There were no commas setting off appositives. There were no commas between cities and states, no commas between dates and years. The annual report had been denuded of commas.

The Comma Man then went to work on it. He put back some commas where they belonged, put some in where they didn’t belong, and left some out that should have been there. He even accidentally put in a serial comma or two.

The moral of the story is that when you’re a publicly-held company and you have a legal obligation to put out an annual report, it’s apparently okay to trust the punctuation to someone who really has no idea what he’s doing. Because otherwise, someone might read it and find out what you’re up to.

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