- Image by rachelkramerbussel.com via Flickr
I made the mistake of volunteering to write grant proposals for a small, local, non-profit organization. I have a little background in what a grant needs to say, and I enjoy writing, so it seemed a natural fit to make a contribution to a worthwhile cause. Like every new experience there was some learning involved, most of it in the frustrating, irritating and regretting category.
After figuring out how to overcome the first hurdle, how to request money for administrative costs when foundations are loathe to donate money for just that reason, and then learning to maneuver the Giant Charity Dollar Consolidator’s computer system, I thought my task was largely accomplished. Until I ran into the Comma Queen, the underpaid, highly detail-oriented program coordinator of this unnamed local non-profit. That’s Program Coordinator with a Capital P, Capital C as I was reminded in the first round of edits. She also declared that a comma should be inserted in every series of nouns before the ‘and’ — papers, pens, and pencils.
Whereas I was under the impression that particular comma style had been retired sometime in the ‘70’s and was no longer the standard. After the third editing round-about, late the night before the grant deadline, I threw up the white flag and added in the last of the missing serial commas for the Comma Queen.
Once the dust settled from our Passive-Aggressive Comma War, I decided to seek out who was right, me or the Comma Queen. I found an old high school grammar text book, a 1965 edition of the Modern Grammar and Composition which is clearly marked THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF THE STATE. The three students who were issued the book from 1966 through 1968 had signed their names on the front inside cover, the last being my brother-in-law. Why it’s on my bookshelf, at a distance of a thousand miles, two states and four decades, is a mystery to me. Nevertheless, it served my purpose even if it is a crime of possession that hopefully the State of Texas never discovers.
Well, round one goes to the Comma Queen. The text clearly showed that a comma is required before the ‘and’ in a series. That was in 1965. Unconvinced, I sought out more current sources of expertise and it turns out the series comma is an either or situation. In journalism, the series comma, or as it’s referred to by some, the Oxford comma or even the Harvard comma, was dropped for expediency. In literature it’s still the standard.
I was satisfied with a draw in the Passive-Aggressive Comma War. However, after reading more about it, I must admit there are times when that extra comma makes for better clarity. Example — I owe my life to my two brothers, Chloe and Lucy.
My brothers aren’t named Chloe and Lucy. The intent was to identify three subjects, not two with subsequent names. It’s misleading without the series comma. There are lots of other examples on when the series comma is necessary. And, some claim, for consistency sake, it should always be used.
So now I’m going to have to sit down with the Comma Queen and show her the difference, when it’s needed and when it’s not. Maybe then we can sign a treaty, calling an end to the Passive- Aggressive Comma War. Hopefully negotiations will be concluded before the next grant proposal comes around.
- “Why It Is Vitally Necessary To Prevent The Extinction Of The Final Serial Comma” Ctd (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)
- Resources on Using Commas Correctly (4rxt.wordpress.com)
- The Serial Comma wars (professorbainbridge.com)
- Merle Haggard and the Gay Serial Comma (outsidethebeltway.com)