In another blog I promised to wrestle the serial comma into abject submission. Watch and be amazed.
Many writers and grammarians and punctuationists have traditionally preferred adding a comma before the word and in a list. So, for example, they would write, “I had bananas, blueberries, and strawberries on my corn flakes this morning.” (This, of course, is not to be confused with the cereal comma.)
At InterVarsity Press, we have a general policy of not using a serial comma. Many are horrified, disgusted, shocked, dismayed, repulsed and find themselves on antidepressants as a result of this. Why have we done so?
We have adopted a general editorial philosophy of using as little punctuation as possible, such as dashes and exclamation points, but also of employing only sparingly special formatting of words, such as italics or all capital letters. The reason is twofold: (1) we want as little as possible distracting the eye or the mind of the reader from the content of the writing; and (2) such overuse can actually be a crutch for poor writing. If an author wants to emphasize something, the prose itself should do the job.
Overall this follows the general trend of English prose over the last several hundred years. Read books from the 1700s or 1800s and you’ll likely see a comma infestation that puts the frogs of Egypt to shame, with every possible thought and phrase set off by punctuation. Writers tend not to do that anymore.
But, some object, not using the serial comma can at times be confusing. And that is true. So in those cases, we allow exceptions. The fact is that using the serial comma can also create confusion. If one generally uses the serial comma, one must also allow for exceptions.
An excellent article in Wikipedia on the serial comma demonstrates that potential problems can and do arise either way. The point is that it is actually arbitrary whether one starts by generally using the serial comma or not. We have chosen to start without it (for the reasons stated above) and modify from there as necessary.
English grammar is not like the rules of Euclidean geometry, fixed and immutable. Rather the purpose of grammar is to facilitate communication. Consistency of spelling, punctuation and grammar can generally facilitate this (and make it easier on proofreaders to catch errors). But if one can communicate more effectively, powerfully and artistically by breaking the rules, the good writer will do it.