Editor’s Column: My Vendetta with the Serial Comma and the Space Time Continuum

What keeps you up at night? Is it how to solve world hunger? Keeping safe drinking water available in our own country? bio pic 2Or something else. For me, and this seems to be causing me insomnia much more lately, it is the use, and inconsistent use, of two small items that are not much larger than the tip of a pencil—the evil serial comma and the dreaded extra space following a period.

The Serial Comma

I know, I know, there are different style guides to refer to that offer all sorts of arguments to the contrary. I’m a proponent of serial commaAP Style, but that’s because I have a journalism background; others do not, and so a battle about style can ensue pretty quickly in my world.  And ultimately, it will depend on your company’s style guide. The powers that be in the workplace making those final decisions about the style guide your company uses may have decided otherwise, and sometimes with good reason, so it can be out of your hands.

I’m not here to start a war, just trying to appeal to your common sense and see how I see things with regard to change and the time we are living in. In this technical age of writing online articles and blogs, I would think that money would be the deciding factor—isn’t it always, when you get right down to running a company? There is only so much real estate on a web page, so I just can’t figure out for the life of me why we would be OK with dozens of extra commas taking up that coveted space? Even in a printed piece, over time, and with translations requiring, at times, much more space than English (German, for example) wouldn’t every saved space count? To me it should, but in others’ minds, there are bigger fish to fry than the crazy comma ramblings about my nemesis.

Two Spaces after a Period 

remington typewriterAnd then there’s the problem of many writers putting two spaces after a period. Back in the “dark ages,” this is how we were taught to write and type. I remember learning to type on a Remington typewriter in school, and you looked forward to hitting that manual space bar twice at the end of your sentences! It was such a sense of accomplishment, knowing that you were able to pound out one more sentence on that cumbersome machine! All through school, I was taught to put two spaces after a period, but then when I reached college, that roof caved in. Somewhere along the line (actually, around 1960) the rule changed. I had to rethink how to write all over again. The problem is, not everyone was retaught to write this way, and so, many times when editing, I see that extra space throughout an entire document. Again, in the times we are living in space matters more than ever, and that extra space has to go! Fortunately, when it comes to extra spaces, we have the tools to check and replace.

Consistency Must Prevail

And in the end, as long as a document is consistent, I guess I can live with it.  Most recently, I’ve been working on a large printed/digital piece that was totally inconsistent with serial comma usage—many different writers contributed to the piece. Again, sometimes the decision is out of your hands—it was out of mine. When I pointed it out, it was decided that due to tight deadlines, we would leave that little problem until the next revision…oh, the pain and lack of sleep that has caused me, wondering if I will be judged negatively by my audience for this atrocity! I also have issues when a website style guide does not stay consistent with the other written documents within a company. But that’s a battle for another day.

My war with the serial comma will continue and my education efforts about using one space after a period will go on…hopefully, eventually, with some iota of success. In the meantime, I will do deep breathing exercises, repeat the mantra “let it go,” and try drinking some warm milk before bed! Keep in mind that the comments in this article may not be the views of the entire English/Technical Writing or NEO STC communities—just the ramblings of an editor/writer with very little sleep.

Note: This newsletter does not use AP Style, hence you will see my nemesis making an appearance. Can you find it?  If you have your own grammar nemesis or personal vendetta, let us know about it. We would be glad to hear your thoughts at Lines & Letters at newsletter@neostc.org.

by Lynn Nickels, Co-editor