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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why You Need the Serial Comma

Found in the NY Times:
He lived in the village of Malverne in Nassau County with his wife, Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald, the mayor of the village and his caregiver.
How many people does the subject of the sentence live with? In theory, it could be as many as four:

  1. His wife
  2. Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald
  3. The mayor of the village
  4. His caregiver
If I were the editor of this article, I would query the writer, but I believe that he lives with one person. If that's the case, I'd rewrite it as follows:
He lived in the village of Malverne in Nassau County with his wife of X years, Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald, who is the mayor of the village and also Mr. McDonald's caretaker.
I admit that it's clear from context that Ms. Norris-McDonald is the subject's wife. Still! Avoid ambiguity.

7 comments:

Tod Brody said...

My favorite passage demonstrating the need for the serial comma is the book dedication that reads "I'd like to thank my parents, God and L. Ron Hubbard."

Cameron Kelsall said...

As an editor, it's always been my understanding that although AP style eschews serial commas in simple series, they are permitted in complicated series (at the editor's discretion). The amount of information being imparted here--and the manner in which it is described--rises to that level to me. Were I the copy editor, I would have added a serial comma.

Molly said...

Huh? Isn't the non-serial comma interpretation in this case the correct one? Adding the serial comma would give the four individuals reading - a list. This is a case where leaving it out actually works. Unlike Steve Pinker's examples from "A Sense of Style" 293:
Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard's ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall
I'd like to dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Highlights of Peter Ustinov's tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

- These can be misinterpreted as appositives, rather than lists. Like: Lisa Hirsch, an admirer of Nelson Mandela and a well-known blogger, came to dinner last night.

If you add the comma to Lisa's original example, you get:

He lived in the village of Malverne in Nassau County with his wife, Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald, the mayor of the village, and his caregiver.

A list of people, rather than one person, followed by an apposition. I start to feel that this is a very crowded household!

Lisa Hirsch said...

You'll notice that my rewrite used the slight of hand of making it perfectly clear that there is one person, no serial comma involved. Yeah, the non-serial version is probably correct, but....

"To my parents, God and Ayn Rand" is the canonical dedication in my Rand-hating circles.

Molly said...

My point was that the serial comma (which is a good thing) applies to lists. The example in the McDonald obituary is not a list. Your rewrite changes the appositive to a relative clause, which may prevent someone from thinking it is a list, or not - there's still a conjunction there, which a serial comma fanatic can exploit:

He lived in the village of Malverne in Nassau County with his wife of X years, Patricia Ann Norris-McDonald, who is the mayor of the village, and also Mr. McDonald's caretaker.

Here too, I don't think there is much ambiguity in real life, but it does in principle allow for an interpretation where the caretaker is an additional person, unnamed.



Lisa Hirsch said...

Unsurprisingly, your command of this is far greater than mine!

"...and was also Mr. McDonald's caretaker" would fix that problem.

kalimac said...

There actually was a book whose author dedicated it to his parents, Ayn Rand, and "to the Glory of GOD", but the phrasing did not allow for the infamous ambiguity of meaning we're all familiar with. I would guess that the more familiar version arose when somebody saw the risible combination of dedicatees and thought that tweaking it would make a good example of a problem whose real-life examples are not usually quite so hilarious.

I blogged the details here.