An American Editor

February 12, 2014

To Serial or Not to Serial?

One thing I have noticed over the years is that what was once controversial in editing comes back to be controversial again. Like the cycle of life, editorial controversies are never put to permanent rest.

The current resurrected argument is whether or not to use serial commas.

My first thought was “what difference does it make whether serial or nonserial rules the manuscript?” My second thought was “what is the primary task of an editor and how does that task mix with the to-serial-or-not-to-serial question?”

We probably should begin with composition, because that is where this controversy has its origins. The more characters there are in a manuscript, the longer the manuscript. If “unnecessary” characters can be omitted, space will be saved and the cost of production will decline. It might not matter greatly if only one copy is being published, but multiply the savings over thousands of copies and over many manuscripts, and the savings become significant. Welcome to the age of bean counting.

(This attempt to save money is also at the foundation for the notion that there is no space on either side of a dash. But I digress….)

What is the primary reason to have a manuscript edited? I see the primary purpose as clear communication. What is the primary purpose of punctuation? To afford the reader clues as to the message the author intends to convey.

Consider this phrase: pregnant women and children. A professional editor would not let such a phrase stand. Why? Because it is not clear whether both the women and the children are pregnant or just the women. Of course, many arguments can be made as to how pregnant does not modify children, but there only needs to be one argument that it does to make the phrase questionable.

Similarly, as Lynne Truss famously pointed out, a professional editor would not let the phrase “eats shoots and leaves” stand without querying it. Whereas in the “pregnant women and children” instance rewording for clarification is the appropriate path, in the “eats shoots and leaves” conundrum, the correct path is punctuation.

Yet how much punctuation? If the intended meaning is that the actor “eats” some food, then “shoots” another actor and “leaves ” the premises, then serial commas are needed: eats, shoots, and leaves. With the serial commas, there is no mistaking the meaning. But those who oppose serialization would prefer a single comma: eats, shoots and leaves.

How clear is the single comma version? Not at all. There are two vibrant possibilities: the actor “eats” and what the actor is eating is “shoots and leaves”; the actor “eats,” then “shoots” another actor and “leaves” the premises. How is the reader to know which is meant?

Clearly there are a multitude of ways to avoid this situation (e.g., “eats bamboo shoots and leaves”) but the question under consideration is serialization. The premise of the antiserialists is that excessive punctuation interferes with the reading flow, thus minimizing the amount of punctuation enhances the reading experience. Proserialists, on the other hand, see punctuation as necessary to ensure understanding and thus as an enhancer of reading flow because the reader does not have constantly stop and attempt to discern what the author intended.

I admit that I fall in the proserialist camp. I see the role of punctuation as the same as highway signage — I need enough of it so that I do not need to stop in the middle of the highway to think about whether to turn right or left.

Editing is about comprehension, not about saving space. Editing is intended to laser focus on author meaning, not on fulfilling the latest lexical fashion. Serial commas rarely mislead a reader, unlike absence of a serial comma. So what harm comes about by serializing? A professional editor’s goal is to make the reading experience so smooth that the reader absorbs the author’s message without consciously realizing she is doing so.

Sufficient punctuation is one of the tools that brings this about. Insufficient punctuation requires a reader to either stop and attempt to decipher the author’s meaning or to gloss over the author’s point in hopes that either the point was not critical or that it will become clear subsequently. But having a reader battle with insufficient punctuation is not in either the author’s or the reader’s interest.

In the case of “eats, shoots and leaves,” the reader either inadvertently draws the correct conclusion or stops to ponder what is meant. What is the negative to the serial usage, assuming the intended meaning is “eats, shoots, and leaves?” There is none and there rarely is a problem using the serial comma (assuming its use conveys the correct meaning). So why have a rule that insists that the serial comma be avoided whenever possible? Why not make the rule always use the serial comma?

I am convinced that the rationale for the avoidance rule has nothing to do with communication, understanding, readability, or any of the other metrics that a professional editor should be concerned with when editing. I believe that it is an accountant’s rule: Omitting the “excess” punctuation lowers the financial outlay for a manuscript. The accountant’s rule does not address any of the metrics that might cause a manuscript to succeed or fail in the marketplace; instead, it laser focuses on cost.

Yet it strikes me that the cost of misunderstanding, of missing the author’s message is far greater than the financial cost of serializing. If readers have to struggle to understand an author, reviews and recommendations are likely to be negative and thus decrease sales. Ease of reading and understanding cannot be divorced from the decision to serialize or not serialize. The professional editor does not work with absolute rules. For the professional editor, all rules bow to the one rule regarding comprehension, and all rules (except that of comprehension) are flexible.

The difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor lies in the rigidity with which the editor applies the “rules” laid out by style manuals and third parties. The more professional the editor, the more the editor determines for herself what the appropriate rules are that govern a particular project, even if it means explaining to a client why a client’s “rule” is being ignored.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

12 Comments »

  1. My first thought was: surely not the serial comma argument yet again.The debate continues and returns because there is no single right-or-wrong rule: for either side there are counter-examples. I agree completely with your statements that (a) the primary purpose of editing is clear communication, and (b) professionalism lies in the rigidity with which the editor applies the “rules”. So in view of the latter I’m surprised you take a position with either side unless it is simply an arbitrary default position.

    My own default position is antiserialist I’m not about to waste everyone’s time arguing for it since I too add commas for clarity where necessary, just as a good proserialist would delete them. I do however disagree with a couple of points.

    First, serial comma usually means a comma “placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and, or, or nor) in a series of three or more terms” (to borrow from Wikipedia); aka Oxford comma. The example of “pregnant women and children” is a slightly different issue being a list of only two

    As for the widely-quoted “eats, shoots and leaves” this is not very relevant to the serial comma debate either. The amusing ambiguity lies with whether there is a comma after “eats”; a serial comma (if any) comes after “shoots” and is irrelevant to the joke. If you are talking about the panda’s diet (1 verb, 2 nouns) then there is never a comma after “eats” and no need for one after “shoots”. If you are talking about three actions then the 3-verb list must have a comma after “eats” and optionally has a serial comma after “shoots”. If used, the serial comma actually creates ambiguity by introducing the possibility that the panda dines on shoots and then departs.

    Depending on context, a 3-item list can raise as many arguments for a serial comma as against. To use other commonly quoted examples: “I was inspired by my parents, Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy” and “I was inspired by my mother, Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy”. In the former a serial comma before “and” would remove any ambiguity; in the latter it would create ambiguity. So whether you are pro- or anti-, professionalism means knowing when to bend the rule.

    Finally, I can’t believe the antiserial rule is cost-related. For a start in a typical book there would not be even half a dozen paragraphs where extra commas might cause an extra line; fewer still where an extra line might cause an extra page; and fewer again where an extra page might mean the cost of an extra plate or signature. And anyway, the designer (or compositor in an earlier era) would have fixed it along with the much more common widows and orphans. And anyway, the debate has been around since well before the rule of the bean-counters.

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    Comment by Jim Hart — February 12, 2014 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  2. Erratum: in 2nd paragraph add “but” after “antiserialist”

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    Comment by Jim Hart — February 12, 2014 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  3. Shouldn’t there be a comma in “Editing is about comprehension not about saving space.”?🙂

    The space-and-cost factor for commas goes back to the days of handset type and relaying news by telegraph. It may no longer be relevant today, especially with computer-based typesetting and layout.

    The major style that doesn’t use serial commas is AP, which is used in the world of journalism (and not even every newspaper follows AP to the letter. Or the comma). A good journalist writes clearly enough that the lack of a serial comma doesn’t interfere with meaning.

    I started out in journalism, so I’m used to not using a serial comma (unless one of the elements in a series is a compound) and equally used to writing in a way that doesn’t create confusion without serial commas. Since I often edit material that is in styles other than AP, I’m also comfortable with the serial comma and agree that it usually serves clarity.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 12, 2014 @ 9:20 am | Reply

    • The AP nonserial comma style was invented to save space in those narrow newspaper columns. It should not be used in books, where there’s plenty of room for the less-ambiguous (and more natural) serial style.

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      Comment by EditorJack — February 12, 2014 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

  4. I have been considering this question in terms of the typical prescriptive / descriptive divide. I’m starting to see these issues in terms of either a nuanced, worldly approach or an unsophisticated approach by which one edits by rote. More so than a professional / unprofessional divide.

    Know what I mean? Wish this was clearer in my mind at the moment. It will get there.

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    Comment by scieditor — February 12, 2014 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  5. Because I’m so used to the serial comma in my work — STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and social sciences — I find it odd when it’s not the preferred style. But there are also practical reasons why I like the serial comma, mostly because it is always helps with clarity, and there is only one rule to apply. With the nonserial comma style, there are lots of exceptions — when a conjunction is used within a list item, if it’s needed for clarity (which I think is always, but that doesn’t fly with my few clients whose style guide stipulates the nonserial comma). And, of course, “when it’s needed for clarity” is very subjective, so one editor might put in the comma and another not see the need.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 12, 2014 @ 7:47 pm | Reply

    • Agree that “when it’s needed for clarity” is subjective – that’s why professional editors are needed. They will at least recognise the potential loss of clarity even if they don’t always have the same solution.

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      Comment by Jim Hart — February 12, 2014 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

  6. I have to agree Jim Hart about “eats shoots and leaves” and “pregnant women and children” — it’s not so much a comma issue as wording. “Eats bamboo shoots and leaves” is the easiest way to avoid ambiguity with that one. (And I know that Lynne Truss is just using it as a humorous example of how important punctuation is, but the phrase “eats shoots and leaves” is unlikely to cause any confusion in context, presumably a book or article about pandas.)

    As for the other example, simply changing the word order would make it instantly more understandable: “children and pregnant women.”

    As for the classic examples in the argument for the series comma, “my parents, Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy”; “my mother, Ayn Rand and Leo Tolstoy” — no matter how you punctuate these, they will trip you up, because people read quickly in blocks of words, no matter how many commas you throw in. Again, they call for a change in the word order: “I thank Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, and my parents for all their invaluable help with my masterpiece…” or better yet, “I thank Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, and all the little people whose names I’ve forgotten for their help along the way…. Most of all, I’d like to thank my parents…” The biggest acknowledgment — to one’s spouse or parents — is usually the very last thing in the Ack section, usually in a sentence or paragraph all on its own.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 12, 2014 @ 8:03 pm | Reply

    • Agreed about rewriting being the best solution in many cases. However, the real value of the Ayn Rand examples is to remind us that commas can have many purposes, in this case as list separators and as weak parentheses. Writing “my parents (AR and LT)” or “my mother (AR) and LT” would be as unambiguous as it is unlikely and inelegant.

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      Comment by Jim Hart — February 12, 2014 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

  7. My favorite example has always been “my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” leaving me a bit amused at the promotion of Leo Tolstoy. 🙂

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    Comment by anansii — February 12, 2014 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  8. Agreed: Professional writing is for communicating. Professional editing is to ensure clarity in the writing and, therefore, better communication.

    “Eats, shoots and leaves.”

    Nope: The single comma here works to clearly state one thing and one thing only; that an actor eats, then shoots someone or something, then leaves the premises. The comma is a divider, a pause, a breath, and always has been. There is no way I or anyone else (who is moderately educated) should gather from this fragment that an actor consumes plant sprouts and foliage.

    The phrase mentioned works fine to describe the behavior of your average homicidal and armed panda. Also, as an anti-serialist, I feel that sdding a comma after “shoots” makes “and” superfluous. Yes, it makes the phrase awkward, but still in the camp of “correct.”

    But as a professional communicator, I WILL use the serial comma when it is necessary, when it makes my communications clear that my parents ARE, in fact, Ayn Rand and God.

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    Comment by Aynte Christ — February 13, 2014 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  9. The problem with the nonserial comma is that when the exceptions are applied, we end up with what can look like inconsistency to the reader. Why was a comma used before “and” here but not there? Even if the reader is not an editor whose mind immediately goes to these things, anything that is inconsistent can be distracting. The reader might not quite be able to put a finger on the problem, only that there is something “off.”

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — February 13, 2014 @ 11:54 am | Reply


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