Book Talk Feb. 2013

tips for making great books 

The Serial Comma--Love It or Leave It...Out


Our tip this month is to "Be consistent!" when you prepare your manuscript for the copyeditor. This is because not all differences of opinion in style are errors. Consistency will show the copyeditor your choices are intentional, which will make the editing process proceed much more smoothly.

An example where good writers agree to disagree is the serial comma:

Serial comma: Cowboys lived on baked beans, potatoes, and canned beef.

Not serial: Cowboys lived on baked beans, potatoes and canned beef.

Serial and not serial are both defendable, but the styles should not be mixed in the same manuscript, certainly not in the same paragraph. Decide what "your" style preference is and stick to it. These decisions will save your editor from guesswork and save you from surprises in the corrected manuscript.

There are times when serial comma usage is necessary for clarifying meaning:

They went to Oregon with Betty, a cook, and a maid. [[ 3 people ]]

They went to Oregon with Betty, a cook and a maid. [[ one person ]]

Both sentences may be correct, but they mean different things. In the second example it appears that Betty is being described as both a cook and a maid.

The standard guide for book editing in the United States is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), which "strongly recommends" the serial comma. Other styles, particularly those used for journalism, recommend against the serial comma, but for most books you will want to apply CMS rules. That being so, reviewing a recent edition of the CMS prior to your final proofread can help you spot inconsistencies in grammar or punctuation.

Be aware of the choices you make, apply them consistently in creating your voice, and your copyeditor will love you for it.

Best wishes,

Deidre Randall, CEO

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