An Argument in Defense of the Serial Comma

A serial comma is the comma you use before the last item in a series of three or more things.

With the serial comma:

I went to the store to buy oatmeal, milk, and cookies.

Without the serial comma:

I went to the store to buy oatmeal, milk and cookies.

There are arguments to be made for and against it.

Why do I bring this up?

There’s an article by Jay Lindsay of the Associated Press called “Evangelists target spiritually cold New England” making the rounds. There’s nothing overly special about the piece — the headline summarizes it well enough.

But reader Jon brings it to my attention because of the comma issue.

Here’s a direct quotation from the piece. The lack of a serial comma gives it an entirely different (and very entertaining) meaning:

They say a reason for the region’s hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.

Jon points out:

I’m pretty sure there are other paths to homosexuality besides Christianity.

Nice catch :)

  • Jeff

    Also:

    “I’d like to thank my parents, God, and Mary.”

    vs.

    “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Mary.”

    In one case, the person thanks his God, a woman in his life, and his parents. In the second case, he claims to be Jesus.

    Commas matter. =)

  • http://neosnowqueen.wordpress.com/ neosnowqueen

    Ah, that would be a problem with the copyeditors. AP style doesn’t use serial commas except when the meaning changes when you don’t use it, or if the sentence becomes too hard to follow without it.

    Which, being a Chicago style girl who has to follow AP at work, should just lend itself to using the Oxford comma all the damn time. It would clear things up so much, and it makes more aural sense to me.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    So salvation is only available for homosexuals? Fred Phelps will be spinning in his grave….sorry wishful thinking.

  • JD

    If you’re stuck with the dogma of one particular style, a simple fix would be to change the order of the items.

  • http://www.truemediamatters.com Don S (daakaa)

    Commafatuation–when all you have is this life to worry about, you can spend its entirety trivializing life. “Is atheism a religion?” No, atheism is nothing. It is the absence of anything permanent, infinite or spiritually substantial. Atheism says, “Even if there was a God, I choose not to recognize any evidence that supports such a concept.” In this, atheists are so arrogant as to assume that God may only exist within the confines of their knowledge and life experiences, despite the fact that human beings have an immense amount of control as to what we accept or deny. The most honest atheists are agnostics. They have no religion because they simply do not know. Atheists claim on one hand to be scientific while declaring God’s non-existence as if all science has concluded such a nondisputable fact. A true atheist (an oxymoron at best) is one who believes there is no God and that is enough. Why would Atheists waste even one moment of their precious, temporal lives attacking God-believers? It is because many atheists are not content to keep their belief to themselves, thus fulfilling the very definition of religion. Only the most apathetic atheist could ever reasonably claim to not be religious. But, then again, maybe there is a way–if you could somehow place the commas just right…

  • Sanity

    Hmmm, funny, I never knew there was such a thing as a “serial comma”. Over here, a “comma and” construction is always wrong and if there’s confusion without the comma, you’ll have to rearrange things.

    Also, Don S seems to have never talked to a real life atheist. If you had, you’d find the number of atheists who say “I believe there is no god” is tiny, compared to the number who say “I do not believe there is a god.” If you would like to learn, do post.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I’ve never understood why we don’t just always use a serial comma. Seems stupid not to, especially since its use more accurately represents what is being communicated.

  • dirtychucks

    Also, Don S seems to have never talked to a real life atheist. If you had, you’d find the number of atheists who say “I believe there is no god” is tiny, compared to the number who say “I do not believe there is a god.” If you would like to learn, do post.

    Thank you! I never had thought of the distinction in that way before. You are very wise =D

  • http://godlessartist.blogspot.com/ Kilre

    Ah ha ha ha. This explains a lot.

    Don S must have had an extra comma up his ass.

  • Delphine

    In the eye of the law, when it comes to child adoption,

    Jessica, James, and Leon.

    means the three can be adopted out separately.

    Jessica, James and Leon.

    James and Leon must be adopted together.

    I always use serial commas. MLA style requires it anyway and I wrote mostly under the MLA style.

  • Valdyr

    Reminds me of the old canard about the importance of capitalization: “It’s the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off his horse and helping your uncle jack off his horse.” As for the weird guy above…

    Atheism says, “Even if there was a God, I choose not to recognize any evidence that supports such a concept.”

    No, it doesn’t. That statement is as factually valid as “Christianity says, ‘There is a giant red ferret ruling the lives of men.’”

    It is because many atheists are not content to keep their belief to themselves, thus fulfilling the very definition of religion.

    So basically you’ve just stated that the definition of religion is to behave in an annoying fashion. You really shouldn’t point a loaded gun at your own foot, you know?

    Assuming you’re genuinely ignorant about why atheists discuss religion and philosophy so much: have you ever thought it might be because religion is shoved in their face every second of every day, assuming they live in a country where the population is mostly religious (of which there are, to say the least, several)?

  • JD

    Don’s roundabout argument seems to suggest that people that don’t believe should just shut up.

    Suggesting that atheists stop “attacking” non-atheists is a double standard without acknowledging that there are plenty of non-atheists attack atheists.

    Besides, the argument that non-believers have to prove their belief is nonsensical. The onus is on those that do believe to prove their belief, proving the negative is an impossible standard.

  • http://www.dwasifar.com dwasifar

    Actually, my favorite example of the confusion caused by a missing serial comma is this excerpt from the transcript of a valedictorian’s speech:

    “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

    (Probably apocryphal but hilarious anyway.)

  • mikespeir

    This has always be a pet peeve of mine. Put the stupid thing in! I feel a little better now.

  • http://www.bluefrogdesignstudios.com/thebluefrogsays/ The Big Blue Frog

    That is definitely an argument for the Oxford comma.

  • Peregrine

    I’ve always used serial commas. Or tried to at least. Then I started working at one of my old jobs, and serial commas were strictly verboten. I didn’t like it, but I liked getting a paycheque, so I didn’t complain.

    I’m so glad I don’t work there anymore.

    On a tangentially related note, I find it ironic that verboten is in my spell checker dictionary, but the Canadian spelling of paycheque is not.

  • Epistaxis

    There are arguments to be made against the serial comma?

  • http://www.stonewaterzen.org/ Taisen

    @Epistaxis: Aye, arguments pro & contra at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Arguments_for_and_against. Basically, the serial comma is usually redundant. In the UK, we generally don’t use the serial comma, so to me it also just looks all… well, American. And so wrong! ;-)

  • MH

    I looked at the website for Redeemer Fellowship Church and they’ll have a tough time in Watertown. While the average percentage of nones for the state is 16%, inside the 128 loop religious skepticism seems much higher than that. Most of the religious people I know are UCC’s, Unitarian’s, or lapsed Catholics. Not exactly a fertile field for evangelical Christianity either.

    Also their belief that non-belief increased because of the region’s churches wandering from traditional Biblical teaches is just wacky. We’re a bunch of skeptics, get your holy texts digitally signed by God’s private key and then we’ll talk.

    Also while NE may turn closed churches into Condo’s, at RPI in Troy NY they turn them into computer centers. Now that’s a statement about religion!

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Don S

    The most honest atheists are agnostics.

    Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive. I am an agnostic atheist because I believe that no gods exist and concede that the question is not provable either way. As far as I can tell and as far as the evidence suggests there is no reason to believe in gods. Present your evidence and I am open to changing my mind.

    A true atheist (an oxymoron at best) is one who believes there is no God and that is enough.

    If only that were enough. If only Christians would leave non-believers alone and not meddle in a shared society so that we have to defend our position. If only theists would keep their faith as a personal faith and not push it into the public arena all the time.

    I believe there are not gods. Theists believe in at least one god. If it stopped there then we could agree to disagree but it never does.

  • Heidi

    Dead churches are a familiar story in New England, which recent surveys indicate is now the least religious region in the country.

    WOOHOO! We won!! I’m so proud of us. And actually, yeah. We have several dead churches in my neighborhood. Maybe they shouldn’t have built a whole bunch of churches within such a short walking distance of each other?

    As far as departing from traditional church teachings, am I the only one who finds that ironic coming from Protestants? Especially since they’re referring to Catholics? Hello?

  • David D.G.

    As a big fan of the serial comma myself, I thank you for posting about this. I happen to be a professional proofreader, so this really matters to me.

    It’s a simple matter of logic, simplicity, and consistency. Excluding the serial comma (or using it only some of the time) invites the possibility of error in conveying the intended meaning. Including the serial comma always conveys the intended meaning correctly.

    I hated having to leave out the serial comma when I worked at a newspaper. AP style really needs to be brought out of the 19th century on this issue.

    ~David D.G.

  • http://www.myspace.com/reverendredmage Reverend Red Mage

    Wow, I guess I’m not the only one who spotted it. I was skimming through it when the article made the front page of the Providence Journal, and suddenly my eye caught “…as a path to salvation and homosexuality.”

    I lol’d.

  • http://www.truemediamatters.org Don S (daakaa)

    Sanity, it amazes me that you are so good with commas but split hairs on the semantics of “belief in no God” or “not believing in God”. If not believing in God leaves open the possibility of God’s existence, that is agnosticism, not atheism. The agnostic says, “I may or may not believe in a God…I really don’t know.” At least that is honest. Maybe you are talking about an atheistic choice within an agsnostic belief system. In other words, unless you deny God’s existence, you cannot be atheistic by definition. Leaving the door open as to whether God exists or not is not atheism. Granted, it may be that there is a type of atheist that acts like the child who doesn’t want to hear, puts her fingers in her ears and screams, “La, la, la…I can’t hear you.” She doesn’t hear by choice. But the atheist who says, “I never said God did not exist” is definitely a puzzle.

  • Nathan

    Don S…you are wrong.

    The agnostic does not say what you claim. The agnostic says, “I do not know whether a god exists.”
    The corollary is a “gnostic” position, or, “I know whether or not god exists.”

    Theists would say “I believe in a god.”
    Atheists would say, “I do not believe in a god.”

    Atheism relates to belief, agnosticism relates to knowledge.

    Most atheists would not claim certain knowledge that any deities do not exist. most likely you would hear a claim such as “there is no evidence for a particular deity, therefore I do not believe they exist.” You may, however, hear a non-believer claim that a specific god does not exist, usually due to some logical impossibility.

    Your knowledge of atheism is poor. I suggest you do some more reading and less posting.

  • DSimon

    Nothing like having a theist come in here to correct us poor misguided atheists about the meaning of atheism.

  • http://www.truemediamatters.org Don S (daakaa)

    I have heard many atheist state plainly, “God does not exist.” I have read books in which atheists make this claim. What is your name for those who know God does not exist? Antignostics, maybe? What is that common theme that rises again and again from the halls of atheism? It is pure arrogance and feigned superiority. Add to that, the maximizing of the trivial (consider on this blog alone how much effort has gone into ruminating on the serial comma). Are there atheists honest enough to avow God’s non-existence? It was Woody Allen who said, “Not only is there no god, but try getting a plumber on weekends,” which was an awesome marriage of atheism and the trivial. After all, if there is no god, who really cares about plumbers or commas? If all life ends in the dust of death, then all of life is an exercise in futility. The atheist can boast that he exists a few fleeting moments longer than the god he denies.

  • http://www.truemediamatters.org Don S (daakaa)

    Thank you, DSimon, for making such a strong case for atheism. While I have neither thought of atheists as being “poor” or “misguided”, I have found many to be intellectually arrogant, which is not the same thing at all. Your presumption that I look at all atheists with pity reeks of immature prejudgment, awful qualities in any belief system. “Misguided” implies that I believe all atheists are somehow being guided. I believe some are followers and some are leaders. They can’t all be misguided. I’ve been criticized for my lack of understanding about atheism, and I will certainly grant you that I don’t hang out in the modern atheistic community enough to know what their latest consensus of the definition of atheism is. What I do see, however, is a lack of honesty in apologetics that reeks of the same intellectual dogmaticism as the priests and fundamentalists you criticize. The very fact that you would lump me in a category with all other “deists” with a deliberate and condescending air, shows how little you have to learn from anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. I entered this blog looking to openly debate and to learn in the process. Already I’ve met atheists who sweep me into broad categories or whose best argument is that I’ve got a comma up my ass. Others allude to their beliefs but either don’t state them or present them inconsistently. While I certainly would be hypocritical to lump all atheists in the category of those I’ve encountered at the friendlyatheist.com, I’ve read enough to know that this is not the place to learn about them.

  • DSimon

    Must… resist… feeding troll… argh!

    What is that common theme that rises again and again from the halls of atheism? It is pure arrogance and feigned superiority.

    Projecting much? All the arrogance in this particular thread has been coming from you. We were having an amusing little conversation about commas until you stormed in and started insisting that not only should atheists not talk about atheism, but that it’s also somehow silly for us to discuss anything else, such as the finer points of English grammar.

    After all, if there is no god, who really cares about plumbers or commas?

    If there is no god, who really cares about plumbers? The spouses of plumbers, people with leaky faucets, and the plumbers themselves. (Serial commas make this sentence look more professional, IMO).

    If there is no god, who really cares about commas? Journalists, keyboard manufacturing companies and your 4th grade English teacher. (This isn’t bad either, though; it seems to have a more conversational tone).

  • MH

    The linked article made me curious about the concept of Church planting, as I never heard about it. In doing some internet digging I found Vermont termed the “graveyard for new churches” by one church planter. I also find it amazing that the evangelicals are so concerned about New England.

    Oh and I’ll weigh in on the God versus plumbers rat hole. If you have a backed up toilet who are you going to call?

    Plumbers 1, God 0.

  • Siamang

    Troll doesn’t use carriage return.

    Why is it always the way? Trolls hurt eyes.

    I think it’s because they only want to rant, they don’t want to be read clearly or be understood.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I’m agnostic, atheist, adaakaaist
    1. I don’t claim knowledge about the existence of gods (agnostic)
    2. based on no positive evidence, I don’t happen to believe that gods exists (atheist).
    3. based on propositional logic, if there is a god, then I don’t believe that said god would send non-believers to an everlasting hell.

  • DSimon

    The very fact that you would lump me in a category with all other “deists” with a deliberate and condescending air, shows how little you have to learn from anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

    Now, that’s just not fair. If you’ll go back and read my comment, you’ll see that I deliberately and condescendingly lumped you in with theists, not deists. There’s a difference, you know.

  • medussa

    DonS,
    did you really “enter this blog looking to openly debate and to learn in the process.”?
    Because if that was your intention as you claim, you should reread your post and ask yourself if that’s any way to approach that task.
    Presuming to tell me, as one of the readers here, how I should define myself as an atheist, and that if I have a different perspective I am being dishonest, is no way to openly debate and dialogue.
    Also, telling me that to be out as an atheist is somehow despicable, and only proves something about the validity of religion, is offensive and non-sensical. (BTW, that last comma made a big difference!)
    Try showing some respect, try reading some posts, try using paragraphs so your posts can be read without getting a headache.

    I was an undefined atheist until the last election. By that I mean I didn’t really discuss the subject much, although if pressed, I probably would have identified as an atheist. But during the last election, theists came to my State, donated money to my State, and generally interfered with the elective process in my State, and succeeded in rescinding my civil right to get married.
    If you want to blame the recent rise in atheism on someone, I suggest you look at theists who misuse their religious delusions to discriminate and oppress people.
    There’s your culprit.

  • Naumadd

    It’s the nature of language as a tool for communicating meaning that the user makes up their own damned rules according to what’s needed at the time. Whether or not what one means is accurately communicated to another depends on the receiver knowing the significance of the words, syntax, and punctuation one uses. If the receiver accurately understands what you mean, it matters little how it was communicated. The use of a comma versus no comma is context dependent and NOT a universal rule. Certainly, one ought to be thoughtful of how one’s communication will be received, however, the receiver is equally responsible for at least attempting to discern what it is you’re attempting to communicate. Linguistic “rules” are nothing of the sort. They are mutual agreements which can be broken at any time and for any reason agreed upon between those in the specific context. Languages emerge, grow, change over time because those using it need the tool to do things their way at least as much as they need it to do things conventionally. When a “rule” or even an entire language is no longer of much use to many, it falls out of fashion. When it is of no use to anyone at all, it disappears.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    Don S, I think you’re getting mixed up with common statements within a certain context like “There is no God”, “Gods are imaginary”, “God is all in the mind”, “Your sky daddy is a made up story”, etc with the broader idea of atheism. Very simply (again) atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Please note that no positive statements or factual claims are made, only a denial of belief.

    Perhaps an example would help? In addition to being an agnostic and an atheist I am also an aunicornist. It isn’t something I advertise or talk about much because unicorn believers aren’t denying their fellow humans civil rights, insisting that I should believe in their magic horse with a horn, or trying to force unicorn related mythology into schools disguised as science. I have not, and probably won’t ever, see all animals on this wonderful planet that we share so I cannot deny categorically the existence of magical horned ponies.

    I do not believe that they exist and am even happy to say, in common parlance, that unicorns are nothing more than stories for children or even that they do not exist. If pressed or in more detailed conversation I will take the time to express my lack of belief carefully so as to avoid confusion but in blog comments or in online forums I am happy for the careless “Unicorns aren’t real” statement to shine.

    The same applies to gods.

  • Daniel

    I don’t think the lack of a serial comma in the original post is a problem. It does not change the meaning of the quote at all.

    They say a reason for the region’s hollowed-out faith is a pervasive theology that departs from traditional Biblical interpretation on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality.

    There would have to be an ‘and’ after ‘Jesus’ for the ‘salvation and homosexuality’ to be linked together the way it’s suggested. As it is, with no ‘and’, the paragraph is fine. It does not suggest Christianity is a path to homosexuality.

  • MH

    hoverFrog, you obviously haven’t seen the machinima on You Tube about what the Invisible Pink Unicorn does to people who are aunicornists.

  • Peter

    I absolutely cannot resist quoting Vampire Weekend on this one, and I’m amazed I got to it first. Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until – “My God,” says a second man, “I must be dreaming, I though I saw a unicorn.” At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience…”Look, look!” recites the crowd. “A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer.”

    — Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)

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  • http://saganist.blogspot.com/ Saganist

    “Listen here, all you atheists! I’ll tell you what an atheist really is!”

    Thank you, come again.

  • http://niveker14.webs.com NiVeKeR14

    What is your name for those who know God does not exist? Antignostics, maybe?

    No, those would also be gnostics. As in a gnostic atheist.

    Theres Agnostic Atheists: Those that claim to not know for sure whether gods exist and also do not believe in them.

    Gnostic Atheists: Those that claim to know gods do not exist and therefore do not believe in them.

    Agnostic Theists: Those that claim to not know for sure if gods exist, but nevertheless believes they do.

    and Gnostic Theists: Those that claim to know gods exist and therefore believe in them.

  • dostoyevskyist

    Rather than wasting time haggling over dry definitions of terms, I’d like Don S or any other self-respecting theist to explain why their god slaughters so many children and torments the vast majority of human beings who have never heard of it. Without a satisfactory explanation–or an admission that their god enjoys human suffering–theisms like Christianity have no value for any reasoning person. Belief in Shiva the Destroyer or in one of the bloodthirsty Aztec/Inca/Maya deities makes more sense.

  • Ant

    Bring this back to the subject of the OP, it’s all very well a bunch of experienced and practicing writers discussing the ins and outs of the serial comma (and the enlightened path to homosexuality for that matter). However, I work in an engineering environment, where writing is about showing other people how clever you are, by writing as much as possible (I’m working on a solution). Most of those SMEs wouldn’t know if a serial comma altered the meaning of their sentence or not; so in my context, it’s simpler to have a rule they can all understand: put it in.
    And thank you to Hemant for spotting this, it’s a far more comprehensible argument for including it than the ‘My parents, God and Ayn Rand’ version.

  • billy

    Believers! Refrain from putting your “God” on our money,in the pledge, and on the courthouse steps. If you use government to force me to live your belief, I must resist.

    Yucch. Can’t help it… fed the troll…

    Cross an agnostic, an insomniac, and a dyslexic you have someone who is awake all night wondering if there is a dog.

    At mother’s death I am pretty sure the last thought in her mind was that she was going to Jesus. With such a belief it does not matter if God exists or not. Only the belief needs to exist.

  • Barry

    I disagree with you on this:

    I don’t think the lack of a serial comma in the original post is a problem. It does not change the meaning of the quote at all.

    As written,

    the exclusivity of Christianity as a path to salvation and homosexuality

    can be read as being in apposition to

    the divinity of Jesus

    As in, what makes Jesus divine is that he is the exclusive path to homosexuality. The original may not be as completely ambiguous as “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God” but it’s still has some ambiguity.

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