I hate the serial comma: the final comma in a series, e.g., “this, that, and the other thing.”
The one after “that” is the serial comma. Associated Press style, and the style at most newspapers, is to not use the serial comma, i.e., “this, that and the other thing.”
Most magazines use the serial comma. The Washington City Paper uses it, too (even though we otherwise adhere to AP style), and since it’s my job to enforce our house style, I dutifully add that last comma anytime it’s missing from someone’s copy.
That doesn’t mean I have to like it. My argument against the comma is simple: It’s ungrammatical. Here at the copy desk, we hunt down and fix phrases such as “I ate tuna, and crackers for lunch” or “I came for lunch, but stayed for dinner.” In both instances the final clause refers to the same subject as the first; they are properly cast, respectively, “I ate tuna and crackers for lunch” and “I came for lunch but stayed for dinner.”
But the serial comma ignores this inconvenient fact. If you have three things for lunch, you magically don’t have to obey the rules of grammar! Now you can say, “I ate a can of tuna, some sweet corn, and crackers for lunch,” or “I came for lunch, got drunk, and stayed for dinner.”
I understand the arguments in favor of the serial comma. Sometimes series-laden sentences can get confusing. In such instances, even the AP Stylebook says it’s OK to use a serial comma to help the reader out; the example it gives is “The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.” I’m not convinced that even that sentence is ambiguous enough to require the final comma. But hey, if it makes it easier for a reader to scramble through a thicket of a sentence, then Godspeed, foul squiggle.
Even better is to recast sentences that require a serial comma to make sense. The Laughorist, a blog that often touches on the mechanics of writing, got my attention with an argument for the serial comma (Vanity Fair‘s James Wolcott approved; so did Emdashes.) It comes from the Chicago Manual of Style and gives the following example: “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.” Sorry, but that’s nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a little painless surgery: “With gratitude to the pope, Mother Teresa and my parents.” (And before you ask, “pope” isn’t capitalized without the pontiff’s name in either AP or Chicago.)
All that said, I have no intention of attempting a serial-comma coup here at the City Paper. I think history counts at institutions, and anyway I’m pretty sure I’m alone in my hatred of this unnecessary, ungrammatical, and decorative piece of punctuation. Using it there didn’t even hurt. Much.