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Why the modern use of the comma is driving me crazy.

Years ago, there was never any dispute: when you listed a bunch of things in a sentence and finished with the word 'and ________.', there should always have been a comma before the 'and', i.e. "I have lived in France, Germany, Italy, and China."

The modern grammarians (is that even a word, haha) seem to think that the final comma should be omitted because they claim it is redundant. They claim that without the comma, everything should be adequately clear, for example: "I have lived in France, Germany, Italy and China." Is that really clear? I beg to differ, and for two reasons.

First, the comma's use is not just as a separator of things; it is also used as a pause device. Without the last comma, that sentence reads: "I have lived in France (pause) Germany (pause) Italy and China (said quickly together)." That's not correct at all and we all know it. It should read: "I have lived in France (pause) Germany (pause) Italy (pause) and China." The ONLY way to include that final pause is with the comma: "I have lived in France, Germany, Italy, and China."

Second, without the comma, the meaning IS different. For example, "I like to eat pizza, sandwiches, fish and french fries." Come on people: without the final comma, we have no idea what this person means! Does the person like to eat fish and french fries together, or fish as a separate meal and french fries as a separate meal? Returning to the "Italy and China" example, does this mean that the person somehow lived in Italy and China at the same time, i.e. one month in Italy, and then one month in China, back and forth, for a year, living in both places at the same time because of work related conditions, or does it mean that Italy is a separate entity during a different time, and that China is a separate entity during a different time? Without the final comma, we simply do not know.

The bottom line is that you NEED to use that final comma. Screw the modern usage: it's incorrect. -Monroe

Comments

You are referring to the serial comma, Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma.
 
In AmE which is what I assume you speak, it is common use and viewed as "proper usage." There are few style guides that firmly oppose Oxford comma.The most common omission for this type of comma is to "save space" in newspapers.  
 
I do not know where you get this "modern usage" nonsense from, but you are beating a dead horse.
Correct, incorrect, red penned or not, I prefer the comma there. When I read over essays where students have left it out, my hand twitches to put one in. Maybe it's for the sake of uniformity. Maybe it's the natural cadence of the language which stumbles when the comma is left off. Either way, I stand up for the little mark.
From a purely grammatical perspective, both the use and omission of this comma is perfectly acceptable. You are talking less about rules and more about style/stylistics.

The funny thing is, "correct, incorrect, red penned or not" omits this comma for the specific purpose of clarity, that red-penned or not, are linked. If for the sake of uniformity it is best to look at the entirety of the student's writing, and if it remains uniform throughout, should be best left alone. If it is used in specific cases for clarity as your omission, or as an addition in the case of the Oxford comma (in specific use)...
 
The serial comma as you say, "the little mark," does not need to be stood up for because it is optional in this case. It is based on the author's taste alone whether to include or omit this punctuation.

It is worth noting that traditional grammarians view "I am smarter than him," as incorrect because "than," is a coordinating conjunction. However, I would laugh at the day someone says, "I am smarter than he," for all intents and purposes of being grammatical (which is not this case)...
I say 'modern usage' because in all of the instruction I have had as a student over my years in grammar school, middle school, high school, and college, I was always told to insert this final comma. Then, suddenly, while I was in law school, and now even in my PhD program, I was/am being instructed to omit the comma. Finally, this past year, while I was in Shanghai, China for one year teaching English at Wall Street English, the students were all omitting this comma. Even in billboards and advertisements I see it now too. In years past (I am 37 years old now), I would never find that comma omitted. Now, every time I see it, it irks me. Sometimes, it even confuses me. I actually saw an advertisement recently with the punctuation as such: "I like eating hamburgers, pizza and peanut butter and jelly." @Mathew N: Yes, I am American, but even in America, I am seeing this final comma more and more being omitted. I just don't understand why I am seeing it more often (or perhaps in recent years I have just become more aware)... Regarding "correct, incorrect, red penned or not", I agree: it SHOULD be omitted here because the items are linked. I find, however, that too many people omit it CONSISTENTLY, and to me, the results are usually confusing, and as Cala E said, disruptive of the cadence of the sentence. Anyway, very interesting discussion guys. I appreciate your comments Mathew and Cala.
Ugh: why does WyzAnt always leave out the spaces between paragraphs? Do I need to use HTML here or something?
A lot of the stuff that is taught in middle school and high school is by people that do not have post-bac education in the field (and to be quite honest don't know what they're teaching). What you may have been taught in college was based on bias of your professors (which is always the case). You do realize the reasons for omitting this comma, as I stated above, follow your complaints about the China teaching experience - to save space. Also, as you should be well aware, Wall Street English is not the same as literary English nor is it the same as common usage. I will repeat again, for the advertisements and billboards you see, follow the newspaper example... it is for the purpose of saving space. Grammatically it is not wrong, technically it is not wrong, it is just not to your liking. However, the writer of the advertisements you see is not a grammarian that follows the style you agree with. They follow their own style (and yes this is the singular "they" that is not worldly accepted).
 
Get upset to make change; not because it isn't to your liking.

It is very seldom the case that true ambiguity occurs with the omission of the series comma.

EX: I brought my phone, wallet and briefcase to work.
 
Although some stylistic guides prefer the series comma (Garner's Modern Usage) it is nice that multiple styles exist so that we as speakers of the language can pick and choose. To create our own "style."
Throughout middle school and high school (and even college) I would also bet that you learned, "do not start a sentence with because," or never end a sentence with a preposition. I feel like you would greatly benefit from reading Garner's Modern American Usage. Because, most of your issues have nice explanations in this book.
 
Best of luck,
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Monroe M.

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