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.”
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.”