Here at PB.com, we dote on the serial comma (or, as we refer to it when in our more Anglophillic moods, the Oxford comma). So we were interested to see our favorite grammatical rule taken up at The Volokh Conspiracy by David Post:
A random walk through yesterday’s NY Times pulled up the following:
In a story about the Fox v. FCC decision from the Second Circuit, page B1:“The decision, which many constitutional scholars expect to be appealed to the Supreme Court, stems from a challenge by Fox, CBS and other broadcasters to the FCC’s decision in 2004 . . .”From Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed column, p A27“Some mix of fear, love, hopelessness and shattered self-esteem keep her from trying to run away. . . . ”From a story in Sports on the All-Star Game, page B14:“The National League’s motivation might have stemmed from . . . . the folksy, funny and almost fiery pep talk that [Charlie] Manuel gave before the game . . .”I’ve been noticing, the last year or so, the absence of that serial comma — the one that should precede the final item within the list — with increasing frequency, and it’s pretty clear that the Times Style Guide must consider it optional. It is becoming harder and harder to insist upon its use, given that it is so frequently omitted (even in “good writing”).
Unfortunately, as informed readers will know well, this is stuff and nonsense. Evidence as to the use of serial commas by newspapers tells us nothing about the social state thereof. Why? Because newspapers have never used the serial comma.
Why not? It's a throwback to days when type was set manually letter by letter and character by character. Omitting the serial comma eliminated the need to set a comma sort. This sped up the process of typesetting, which reduced labor costs. It also saved space, always a consideration. Finally, it mean=t you needed fewer comma sorts, which saved a few pennies:
Traditionally, the serial comma was standard fare in written English. However, once the printing press entered the equation, newspapers decided to forgo the serial comma to save space. That’s why journalism style guides such as The New York Times Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook do not include serial commas in their guidelines. (Link)