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December 28, 2006


Andrew Galbraith

Hi, Dan --
I understand the reason for the AP and NYT rule has to do more with the
economics of newspapers than grammatical logic. Serial commas take up
precious space on the page, and penny-pinching editors realized that, in
many cases, they could be removed without causing confusion. This freed
up more space for articles and advertising, and gradually became an
accepted practice.

Of course, that may explain the practice, but it hardly justifies it!


After ten years as a book writer and copy editor (using the Chicago Manual, of course), I use that serial comma automatically. I'm using the AP guide now, so I've had to readjust my thinking. However, unless it's a very simple list of elements, my instinct is always to go for the comma.

Loved your examples. Found my way here from Steve Rubel's blog and look forward to reading advice from a professional wordsmith. Thanks for sharing!

Paul Chaney

Thanks for the insight on the comma thing. That is very helpful.

I have a question about the use of quotation marks and their relationship to punctuation. In your post, you placed the "?" after the close quote here...word “and”?...and here...“potatoes, artichokes and radishes”?

I was taught the punctuation mark belongs inside the close quote...“potatoes, artichokes and radishes?” Is that not the case across the board? If not, how do you differentiate?

Dan Santow

First of all, thanks to you all for commenting today, as well as to my colleague and fellow blogger, Steve Rubel (http://www.micropersuasion.com/), through whom many of you found Word Wise. Please continue to post your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

Andrew, you could very well be right that space is the reason the serial comma has been purged. I think that’s why single quotation marks are used in newspaper headlines, as well.

Paul, a question mark would only go inside quotation marks if the thing being quoted is a question. I was asking a question that included a quote – is it “potatoes, artichokes, and radishes” or “potatoes, artichokes and radishes”? – not quoting a question.


I suspect the comma thing is an americanism. The Economist Style Guide coaches us: "Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and."

Also, putting commas and such inside quotation marks is an American habit -- even where it would seem more logical to enclose only the brierf excerpt with quotation marks and then trod along happily with a period or a comma.

Dan Santow

pg, you bring up a great issue, since those of us who work for global companies have to learn to be sensitive to other accepted styles. But I’ll call you out on something, too: I don’t think that putting punctuation inside quotation marks is an American “habit” as much as it is an actual rule of grammar we adhere to.



On the punctuation - as British writer working in North America, putting punctation inside the quotes was one of several grammar rules I had to adapt to. I agree it seems to be a rule not a habit.

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