Grammar Guide #5: Kill the Serial Comma and Extra Spaces

While technical writers and devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style typically use serial commas in their writing, there are good reasons for Web writers to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which advises against them.

First, to better engage readers, Web writing is usually more colloquial and journalistic in style, which is not in line with the more formal serial comma. But there’s a more important reason for not using them. In many languages (e.g., French, German, Italian, Spanish), the serial comma is not the norm and may even go against punctuation rules. So if your site will be translated into another language, your serial comma may be lost in translation and come across as unpolished. That being said, a serial comma is always welcome if it’s purpose for joining the party is to avoid ambiguity or confusion, or if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction.

Examples where the serial comma is not necessary:

Today’s lunch special includes meatloaf, broccoli and mashed potatoes.

The latest version of the application features faster load times, an enhanced user interface and support for open-source plug-ins.

Examples where the serial comma helps to provide clarity:

Today’s lunch special includes meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and green beans.
(In this example the comma helps to clarify that the macaroni and cheese is a single preparation and not a part of the green beans.)

The main points to consider are whether the patient is healthy enough to withstand surgery, has adequate bone density to support the prosthesis, and the proper mental attitude. (In this example the comma helps to clarify that bone density supports the prosthesis not the proper mental attitude.)

Please Step Away From the Spacebar

While we’re on the subject of excess punctuation, I’d like to dispel the myth that more than one space is needed at the end of a sentence. I often see brilliant, well-educated people use two, and sometimes even three, spaces after a period. But that doesn’t make it right. I have to agree with Farhad Manjoo, who so passionately states in his Slate article, “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”

Inserting more than one space at the end of a sentence is merely an unfortunate practice held over from bygone days when people used typewriters that mono-spaced every character. But now that we have sophisticated software programs and user interfaces that automatically format spacing, there’s just no need for all that banging on the spacebar. So unless you’re typing on a Royal manual typewriter, please use just one space between sentences.

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