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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence | The Onion

This satirical (aka untrue) article in The Onion has gone viral, at least among people I connect with on the Web.

The amusing article concludes by noting the issue that seems to raise the most contention among adherents to various style manuals (emphasis added):
Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I've been an adherent to the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook since my early studies and career in journalism. But I also respect and use the much more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style (and other style guides) when I need advice not provided or unclear in the AP book and website.

On the topic of the serial comma, though, I think the debate among style adherents is based on misreading--or not reading--the AP Stylebook.

Here's what AP says (emphasis added):
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.
Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.
AP makes clear that dropping the serial comma should be done only in "a simple series." In other uses, AP wants reporters and editors to use the serial comma. I realize that the words "simple" and "complex" are open to interpretation. But AP's examples of a simple series are really simple. I interpret AP to mean that any series with items of more than one word--or phrases--should take the serial comma.

Granted, Chicago recommends use of the serial comma (or semicolon) in all types of series, including simple series. Chicago's somewhat flexible guideline advises use of the serial comma with phrases like "are normally separated," "strongly recommends," and "should appear."

Two other references I consult often, the Gregg Reference Manual and Garner's Modern American Usage, also recommend using the serial comma in all uses. They note, however, that newspapers and magazines often drop the serial comma.

With my background in journalism, I usually follow and recommend AP's preferences. But I also believe this: Use of the serial comma in all series is never wrong (unless your editor or boss does not want you to use it). And clarity for readers should trump optional style guidelines. 

Here's the related item in the comma entry of Garbl's Editorial Style Manual:
First, in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term: She opened the closet, grabbed a coat, and picked up an umbrella. In a complex series of phrases, the serial comma before the final conjunction aids readability. In a simple series, the comma is optional before the conjunction: The van is economical, roomy and dependable. Also, put a comma before the final conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series needs a conjunction: He likes folk, rock, and rhythm and blues. Don't put a comma before the first item in a series or after the and in a series.
The Onion articles is featured today, Jan. 8, in my weekly online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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