BuzzFeed has just published its style guide, a document that journo-nerds will gobble up. Yeah, the part on corrections is cool, mixing practicalities — “Corrections should be made for errors of fact — not misspellings or typos or broken links” — with ethical flourishes — the only thing worse than committing a mistake “is resisting correcting it,” says the guide.
The part that prompted an appreciative pause from the Erik Wemple Blog, however, was this:
BuzzFeed uses the serial comma: e.g., “We picked up cyan, magenta, yellow, and black balloons for the party.”
Contrast that approach with the AP style guide’s stingy approach to commas. In a simple series like the one above, the AP would likely drop the last comma, like so: “We picked up cyan, magenta, yellow and black balloons for the party.” The Washington Post also disdains the serial comma; for years, the Erik Wemple Blog’s drafts have been brutally stripped of this key punctuation mark by a team of ruthless editors following “style.”
The argument against the sort of comma profligacy championed by BuzzFeed — and the Erik Wemple Blog — is that the final comma is unnecessary and even distracting. It’s clear that a list is afoot here, so chill on the commas — that’s the mentality.
In situations where the list is complex and impenetrable — for example, “Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut,” via Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) — the AP will indulge the final comma. So generous.
But why inject a towering judgment call into the insertion of a comma into a list of items? Here, we have to side with Fogarty, who writes, “Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read.” Correct: It’s a law of human reading nature that our eyes skip ahead on the page, looking for signposts. When lists surface on the page, the reader wants to know right away how exhaustive it is. Serial comma to the rescue.
Plus, the serial comma, we’re going to argue, is American. As explained here, it springs from an imperative to give equal value and weight to each item in a list. Fair, clear, and precise: The serial comma!