How I stole a serial comma from the Comma Queen

Translating and editing can be solitary occupations, so translators and editors like to get together from time to time. When they do, they usually end up arguing about language. And one thing they can never agree on is the serial comma. They can’t even agree on what to call it, with many British preferring the snob value of ‘Oxford’ to the more American serial.

But the Oxford and serial comma are one and the same thing, and what we called it at my Scottish primary school was nonsense. Our teacher told us that commas are used to separate items, whereas and performs the opposite function of joining. We were to divide or co-ordinate – and not do two opposite things at once.

Everyone agrees that there should not be a comma in a two-item list. The Edinburgh teams are Hibs and Hearts, with nobody arguing for Hibs, and Hearts. But it’s when you come to the Glasgow teams that the trouble starts. Should there be a comma before the last item in a longer list such as Celtic, Rangers, Queen’s Park and Partick Thistle?

My answer is not necessarily.

But adherents of the house styles of Oxford University Press and the New Yorker will insist on sticking a comma in before that and. They do so, they say, because it avoids ambiguity – and cite amusing examples of confusing sentences without serial commas to show what they mean:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Beyoncé and God.

This comes, slightly adapted, courtesy of Steven Pinker, who recommends in his recent book The Sense of Style that ‘unless a house style forbids it, you should use the serial comma’. His view is robustly shared by Mary Norris, copy editor at the New Yorker and self-crowned Comma Queen. The house style she upholds, far from forbidding the serial comma, expressly prescribes it. Her magazine is its acknowledged last bastion. Here she is extolling its serial virtues:

This is all very well, and it is good to be clear that Stalin and JFK were not strippers, even though everyone knew that already. Yet where these comma-loving style monarchs go too far is in insisting on that final comma as a default. I say put one before and if there is any risk of ambiguity. But there is no such risk in, for example, a list of Glasgow football teams, so it would be surplus to requirements (rather like Partick Thistle in the later stages of the Scottish Cup). An alert writer is capable of judging and choosing, and need not be slave to a rule.

Which brings me to Tarragona. I was there for the MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) conference and Mary Norris was our keynote speaker. Her talk was everything you would hope for in a good comma queen – witty, lucid and wise – and I found myself afterwards at the end of a long line of editors and translators waiting to pay homage and obtain a signed copy of her bestseller, Between You & Me – Confessions of a Comma Queen, described as “pure porn for word nerds” by the Washington Post.

The queue was so long that it looked as though they would run out before I reached her majesty’s presence; but after a frantic search round the venue I was lucky enough to get hold of the last available one – the display copy, slightly battered and soiled, but my only hope.

I had never met a comma queen before, so made my request with some trepidation: “Could you please sign it To David, Melanie and the boys…er, without a serial comma?”

She paused and stared for an effective length of time, then silently did as I asked, adding just one word to the inscription: “Happy?”

I was. I had bagged myself an instant collector’s item and potential family heirloom: a handwritten dedication from the Comma Queen herself, signed, dated and without a serial comma.