Thursday, April 07, 2011

Ode to the Serial "Smartypants" Comma

Today, Mary Kole, associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency,  wrote a "Smartypants Comma" blog post.

In it, she explains the two different schools of thought on the comma -- the punctuation that mandates a brief pause and separates elements in a list.

Some advocate NOT using the comma before a conjunction in a sentence. They call it the "Oxford comma" or the "smartypants comma," arguing that is it pompous and unnecessary for concept comprehension. They would write:

The American flag is red, white and blue.

Others insist that the serial comma is not superfluous. It has a job to do -- and that job is to allot each element its own personal space.  They don't care if they're labeled high-brow; they put the comma to work. They would write:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

At the risk of being labeled an insufferable smartypants, I confess that I am a big fan of the serial style.  I have been ever since I had a lawyer explain it to me this way:

*  If a will is written: "I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones and Robert White," then the single comma means that John will get half the property. The other half will be divided equally between Sue and Robert, meaning each will receive 1/4. The absence of the comma after Sue's name lumps her with Robert as a single entity.

*  If, however, the will is written: "I leave all my belongings to John Smith, Sue Jones, and Robert White," then all three people are equally important. Each stand on his or her own. So each would receive 1/3 of the property.
Red. White. Blue. Where's YOUR comma?

In monetary terms, if the estate were worth a cool million bucks, the absence of the serial comma in the first example would mean that John would receive $500,000, and Sue and Robert would each get $250,000.

In the second example, John, Sue, and Robert would each receive $333,333.33. Their lawyers would have to fight over who received the extra penny.

So you see, unless you're John Smith, who stands to gain a significant amount of dough from the absence of a comma, there is strong incentive to include it. I think Sue and Robert would agree.

Since April is National Poetry Month, I have composed an Ode to the Serial Comma. Ahem...

Oh comma, my comma,
That comes before "and"
To separate elements so each can stand
On its own. I salute you. 
You are hardly mere filler.
I'm an Oxford smartypants,
Not a serial killer. 

*cue applause*

What's your take on things? Are you a Smartypants? Or a Serial killer?  Weigh in below.


R.L. Naquin said...

Bravo! They can take my Oxford comma when they pry it from my cold, dead keyboard.

The poem is awesome. Thanks for making me laugh this morning!

- Rachel

Ami Hendrickson said...


Serial Comma Users Unite! :) I never gave much thought to the impact a comma could have until I was smacked upside the head with the "this could cost someone big $$" example.

A comma! A comma! My estate tax for a comma!

Considering a series on Punctuation Poetry. Currently working on a ballad to the colon...

R.L. Naquin said...

If you do a poem on the abuse of the semicolon, I'll hang it on my wall.

- Rachel

Ami Hendrickson said...

I love a challenge. And semicolons are *so* inspiring. Further bulletins as events warrant. :)

Unknown said...

Love this post! I have always used the "smartypants comma". My high school daughters were always taught not to. My 4th grader, alas, has been taught the way of the smartypants. Go figure.

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for commenting. Hmm... Perhaps it is possible to plot out a Comma Bell Curve. A whole host of society's ills could then be attributed to whether or not schoolchildren were being "smartypants" or "serial killers" at the time. :P

RedHeadedQuilter said...

I love it! I shared it on Facebook where I have many writer/editor friends.

CaliforniaKara said...

Ah, the age-old debate! Love finding fellow word nerds who appreciate the comma. :)

Here's an Ode to the Serial Comma I wrote back in '09:

Old to the Serial Comma