Grammar nerd alert. A reader writes:
I'm a longtime copy editor recently retired from the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle doesn't believe in the serial comma, but I personally don't have an opinion about it. (There are more important concerns in style and punctuation.) However, the caption that Weintraub presents as an example hardly makes his case; the copy editor who handled it was clearly out to lunch.
To avoid the confusion Weintraub points to, the cap should have been rewritten to say, "The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Haggard's two ex-wives." Note that it now works fine without the serial comma.
Here's another good example that I always use with my students: "The $1 million was divided between Mary, John and Frank," is a lot different than "The $1 million was split between Mary, John, and Frank." The former means that Mary would get $500,000, and John and Frank (since they are grouped together as one entity in the list) would have to split the other half ($500,000 split into $250,000 and $250,000). The latter means that Mary, John, and Frank would each get $333,333.33.
If I were either John or Frank, I think that final serial comma is pretty damn important. In fact, that comma would be worth exactly $83,333.33!
A similar example is the famous, but probably apocryphal, book dedication, "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." It still cracks me up.
The original reason the serial comma (a.k.a. Oxford comma or Harvard comma) was "avoided" was to save space in printed materials, particularly newspapers where every bit of space saved meant more room for ads.
I believe that the rules that require punctuation to go inside double quotes, even when it's not part of the text being quoted are for the same reason. For example:
Richard Nixon was nicknamed "Tricky Dick."
Richard Nixon was nicknamed "Tricky Dick".
The former is technically correct, but I think the second makes more sense logically. Also, when the quoted text DOES have punctuation and it comes at the end of the sentence, you omit the final punctuation:
The small child asked, "Where's my mommy?"
The small child asked, "Where's my mommy?".
I think the second one seems more correct. The question mark is part of the quote, the period ends my sentence.
There are lots of archaic little rules like this that all derive from the old typesetting days. I don't see the harm in adding extra punctuation to make a sentence more clear. Isn't English confusing enough?
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