That indispensable serial comma

Merle Haggard - serial comma caption-450

The cutline reads:

The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

Which propelled University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jeff Weintraub to ask:

Were Merle & Kris & Robert ever actually married?

What the caption writer neglected, of course, was the serial comma, the one that comes (or is omitted) after “crackle” in “snap, crackle, and pop.” When left out of a sentence, this tiny mark sometimes seeks revenge by sneaking up on a unwary writer and landing a devastating blow. In a similar, but more famous example, perhaps apocryphal, a book dedication implied a less-than–immaculate conception:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

As Weintraub notes, the Haggard caption should have read:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

Nowadays, most newspaper style manuals eschew the serial comma, to their readers’ evident peril. The Chicago Manual of Style, The New Yorker magazine, and Contrarian uphold it.

Some think fussing over serial commas a waste of breath, but a 1998 Halifax Daily News column on the neglected mark — now, curiously, preserved on a Russian language website — drew more reader comment than any other column I ever wrote.

If only I’d been as canny as Lynne Truss, I could have parlayed that piece into a massive best-seller, and devoted the proceeds to a leisurely retirement writing Contrarian.

[From Bruce Baugh via Patrick Nielson Hayden, Brad DeLong Jeff Weintraub, and the Daily Dish.]