Making Friends — Trying To — With the Dread Serial Comma

Barbara Falconer Newhall in her writing room with book contract. Photo by Jon Newhall

Book contract. Photo by Jon Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My book contract says that I’m to deliver my manuscript “in conformity with the provisions in The Chicago Manual of Style.”

That means that right now I’m finally going head-to-head with the serial comma.

I’ve been avoiding this showdown for decades. I’m a journalist. The serial comma is anathema to the space-saving habits of newspaper reporters and their bible, “The Associated Press Stylebook.” (Those quotation marks are AP style, btw. Chicago style would be The Associated Press Stylebook.)

The AP Stylebook is very clear about those useless serial commas. “Do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series,” it commands. Make it: “The flag is red, white and blue.”

“The Chicago Manual of Style,” er, The Chicago Manual of Style takes exactly the opposite tack: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma . . . should appear before the conjunction.”

Chicago illustrates this dictum with a, to my mind, somewhat padded-out example: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”

The blue and white cover the 1992 Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual.

An “AP Stylebook” from my Oakland Tribune days. (Chicago style: An AP Stylebook from my Oakland Tribune days.)


That extra comma sitting there right in front of that “and” looks just weird to me. But a contract is a contract, and apparently a book isn’t a book without a generous sprinkling of serial commas.

And I want my book to look like a book.

Which is why I’ve spent the past four days going over my manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, looking for absentee commas.

So far I’ve located eighty-eight of them in my 65,000-word manuscript.

I’ve punched in all eighty-eight, and the folks I’ve interviewed for Wrestling with God—people who have generously shared their spiritual exploits with me—are now fully clothed in commas. To wit:

The Rev. Elizabeth Felts describes holding her stillborn son: “He was eleven inches long, just under a pound, and perfectly formed.”

Mormon Stace Hall describes his two years as a young missionary: “Male missionaries wear a suit every day, and if it’s hot, just a shirt, tie, and dress pants.”

Savitri Hari speaks of her mother, pregnant and widowed at age 16: “A normal mother wears the colorful saris, the jewelry, and the red dot, the bindi, on her forehead . . . a widow is denied all that.”

Jewish mortician Susan Lefelstein says of caring for the dead: “The Jewish religion prescribes a format for the prayers, for when to wash, how to wash, and what clothing to put on.”

World War II airman Robert Tharratt describes being shot down over Germany: “The radio operator had bailed out, the tail gunner was gone, and the pilot was getting ready to go out the nose hatch.”

My book contract also states—emphatically, in bold-face type—that my manuscript shall be delivered “on or about February 15, 2014.” That’s less than two weeks away.

I’m pretty sure there are lots more truant serial commas out there, waiting to be wrestled into my manuscript. I better get to work. Ciao.

Want to hear more from the Grammar Geek? Go to “Splitting the Infinitive — How to Boldly Go There.”  If you’d like to read more about my rocky spiritual journey, see “Impermanence — Everything Changes and So Can I.”




  1. Will Philipp says:

    I love you writing style>>>comma(s) included. Best of luck in turning in your manuscript in 3 days!
    BTW—I see Richard Rohr’s new book on your blog—I did a Men’s Wilderness Retreat in West Virginia with him a couple years ago. Is that jon’s desk behind you in the photo? Tell him I said Hello—& to tell his brother that I will return to Peru this Fall>>>50 years later!
    Abrazos, Will

  2. Over the years, Barbara, I’ve enjoyed your columns on grammar, which I find interesting. But your “serial commas” sound like a real chore. Here’s hoping this week’s rain helps keep you at the computer. You have 9 days left! Good luck! Looking forward to “Wrestling With God.” (Really good title.)

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks, Toppy. I’ve got a lot to do. And I really want to be on time with my MS. Fortunately, the 15th falls on a Saturday. So I think I can cheat a little and send the MS off on Monday.

  3. Hi Barbara–I came to your blog from a HuffPost article. And, I hate to say it, but I’ve always liked the serial comma. I think it makes me feel writerly, which is unnecessary as I’ve been a writer for years, but go figure. I’m wondering if the serial comma is sometimes called the Oxford comma, or is that an entirely different beast?

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Charlotte — Yes. It’s also known as the Oxford comma. Actually, I’m kinda getting used to the serial comma. And I like commas in general because I can use them to signal the reader to pause before going on to the next element in my — writerly — prose.


  1. […] If you enjoyed this post, you might like “Writers Need Editors and Mine Wants My Manuscript Turned In Now.”  Also, “Making Friends With — Trying To — the Serial Comma.” […]

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