Apples, Peaches, and George Clooney Naked

Question: Hey, Copy Bitch: What’s the proper use of commas in a series: A, b, and c. Or A, b and c. I see it both ways. I usually do it the first way. That’s the way I remember being taught when I was in school. Thanks!

—Michelle D., Connecticut

Answer: Both are technically correct. If you’re writing for a specific publication, it will likely have a style guide it wants you to use. For example, MLA (Modern Language Association) uses the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), so you would write the following: I love apples, peaches, and George Clooney naked.

AP (Associated Press) doesn’t use the serial comma. So you would write the sentence like this: I love apples, peaches and George Clooney naked.

The Copy Bitch always uses the serial comma, unless she’s overruled by the publication she’s writing for. Why use the serial comma? For clarity’s sake. When you write, you want to be clear, and nine-and-a-half times out of 10, the serial comma will assist you in getting your point across.

To wit: consider this sentence: I’d like to thank my parents, William and Mary. How many people are you thanking? You could be thanking your parents and two other people named William and Mary. Or you could be thanking your parents whose names are William and Mary. If the former, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents, William, and Mary. (Actually, in this example, I’d probably put “parents” last in the series, just for added clarity.) If the latter, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents: William and Mary.

Here’s another good example from A Writer’s Reference by the late Diana Hacker: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Are we discussing the midnight orgies or participating in them? Written as is, the reader is left to believe that the discussion includes midnight orgies. The Copy Bitch suspects this wasn’t the writer’s intent, so she would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies, and midnight orgies.

If the writer did mean only discussions, then the Copy Bitch would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, and much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Of course, the former sentence sounds much more fun. 😉

Hope this helps!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

9 replies
  1. Clare McD
    Clare McD says:

    Great examples! I’ve always wondered about this one and have always used the serial comma… now I am determined to!

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Apples, Peaches, and George Clooney Naked […]

  2. […] style guides that address items like the ones you list above (in addition to other things, such as serial commas). Anyone who creates content for the company (marketers, copywriters, consultants, etc.) should […]

  3. […] post from the other day–Apples, Peaches & George Clooney Naked–is one example. And every time I work on copy, that’s my goal: to create a peek-a-boo […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *