but serialously, folks…

I do not understand the vogue for dropping the serial comma – as if somehow its presence delays the reader, or its insertion takes precious time better spent on some worthier task – when its absence invariably creates unwarranted connection between the last two items of the series, and sometimes leads to even more confusion.

Here’s the first sentence of Stuart Klawans’ review of There Will Be Blood, as printed in the January 28, 2008 issue of The Nation:

By the time the boy lies moaning on the floor, spooned against a father who is helpless to soothe him, the earth has blasted open, fire has whooshed up through an oil derrick and a dozen roustabouts, dwarfed by their handiwork, have raced in all directions across the stony Central California hilltop, trying to contain the immense forces they’d set loose.

The first time you read this, did the main clause’s figurative language cause you to ask “wait – is the fire whooshing somehow through [as in “among” or “forcibly separating”] the roustabouts as well?” Cuz it sure did me. Which meant that at first, I was slightly at sea on the question of what “dwarfed” was doing: verb? past participle? Ultimately, of course, it becomes clear that it’s the latter, that it modifies “roustabouts,” and that the phrase beginning “a dozen roustabouts” is the third in a series of clauses describing what happened “by the time the boy lies moaning…” (the first two being “the earth has blasted open” and “fire has whooshed…”

In a long, complex sentence like this one, what possible justification is there for omitting that comma, which would have gone a long way toward clarifying the sentence’s structure?

None that I can think of.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under langwich

4 responses to “but serialously, folks…

  1. yellojkt

    It’s not the serial comma that is missing. Two independent sentences joined by a conjunction get a comma before the conjunction.

  2. 2fs

    Sure it is: the “series” here consists of three independent clauses, namely “the earth has blasted open,” “fire has whoosehd up through an oil derrick,” and “a dozen roustabouts…have raced…”

    You’re certainly also correct, though, in that the second and third phrases are independent clauses, and by that logic alone should be separated by a comma.

  3. Anonymous

    The sentence could also use a semi-colon or two.

  4. 2fs

    The sentence could also use a semi-colon or two.

    No, there’s no legitimate place for a semicolon there. A semicolon has two basic functions: one, to join grammatically complete phrases; two (as in this list), to separate items in a list if the items contain commas within themselves.

    If you put a semicolon after the opening clause (which modifies the entire sentence), you’ve stranded that non-independent clause with no apparent connection to the rest of the sentence. I suppose you could say that, because the last lengthy clause contains phrases set off by commas, the series should be subdivided by semicolons (rule 2 above) rather than commas. I don’t think that would be technically wrong – but I also don’t think it’s required.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s