Friday, May 12, 2017

The FBI Director, Grammar, and the Serial Comma

America erupted in a firestorm of politics, name-calling, and backlash over the firing of James Comey as FBI Director.  There are possibly many lessons one can learn from this chapter in American politics, but I may be the only one who offers a grammar lesson.

Comey issued a "good-bye" letter to the FBI. I first read the Director's letter on my ABC News Twitter feed. After reading the letter, a comment from a fellow Twitter reader caught my eye. Sweetie Bird wrote of Director Comey, "He uses the serial comma, and for that alone, I shall forever admire him."

Of all the things Sweetie Bird could express her admiration about  FBI Director Comey, it's "because he uses the serial comma"  she decides to bestow her praise. 

He uses the serial comma.

I laughed when I read that statement.

Let me explain what the serial comma is. Director Comey wrote in his good-bye letter:
"In times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence."
The last comma in that sentence (in red so you can see it) is the serial comma. It's the last comma in a list of three or more items and usually comes before the word "and" or the word "or."  If you read newspapers a great deal, you won't see the serial comma because newspapers don't use it to save space. More and more book publishers are also not using the last comma in a series of items, and according to experts in grammar, the serial comma is truly an optional comma. You don't have to use it.

Unless you are a grammar snob. 

The serial comma is also called The Harvard Comma or the Oxford Comma because those two institutions and their publishing houses would die before they allowed any book they published to hit the market without the serial comma. It's expected, demanded, and enforced (visual pun intended). 

Typically, we all might say, "Who cares?" Except, in this one point I side with the snobs. Let me show you why. 

In a documentary of the late Merle Haggard, the text writer promoting the film did not use the serial comma. A sentence from the documentary's description is lifted to show how sometimes not using the serial comma can cause great confusion:
Those interviewed were Merle's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. 
In this convoluted culture of ours, a man married to two men is not as unusual as one might think, and without the serial comma, it looks as if Merle was married to two men. However, if the serial comma were to be used, it might prevent any confusion. For example:
Those interviewed were Merle's two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.
I always use the serial comma. If you've never thought about using it, the admiration Sweetie Bird expressed to Director Comey could be the impetus for you to begin.

If you would like some assistance with proper grammar and punctuation in your writing, I would highly encourage you to download the free software for Windows or Mac called Grammarly.  It is an essential for writers.

Grammarly automatically corrects improper grammar, spelling, and the absence of the serial comma.


Unknown said...


As a stickler for using the serial comma, I absolutely LOVED this post! Thanks for calling attention to it.

On a somewhat related note, there is a trend to use only one space between sentences instead of two, as I was taught in my high school typing class. I am trying to get used to it, and it's definitely a challenge. Perhaps the reason for this change is the same as leaving off the serial comma.

Bob Cleveland said...

I love this post drag decrying liberalism and telling fables.

(,,, <-- insert where desired)

Rex Ray said...


All the news is talking about the firing of James Comey, I was all set to hear your opinion on the right or wrong, good or bad, or whatever; but you chose to dwell on the proper use of the comma.

Comey wrote: "In times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence."

Did Comey know who started the FBI and the corruption of its founder including the cover-up of who killed President John F. Kennedy?

“John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972 was the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have exceeded the jurisdiction of the FBI, and to have used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and to collect evidence using illegal methods. Hoover consequently amassed a great deal of power and was in a position to intimidate and threaten sitting presidents. According to President Harry S. Truman, Hoover transformed the FBI into his private secret police force. Truman stated: "we want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction. They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him."

“LBJ and the Kennedy Killing” by James T. Tague states on page 285:

Hoover’s secret memo written within minuets of Oswald’s death to all FBI Departments stated: “Our job is to convince the American public that Oswald is the real assassin.”

Unknown said...

I read your blog entitled “Tammany Day: The First True American Holiday and Its Connection to Democracy and Enid, OK” after I read your subsequent blog entitled “The FBI Director, Grammar, and the Serial Comma.” My duties related to being caregiver for my wife required me to read them in reverse order to your posting. This comment is posted and intended in humor so please take it in that vein. But I noted the following two sentences have instances when the serial comma is omitted:
“Penn reasoned that all men were created equal, and the principles of liberty, justice and peace are inalienable rights for humankind, regardless of heritage.”
“Tammany Societies sprang up in all the major cities of the New World. Tammany Societies were political clubs built on the principles of equality, justice and liberty for all.”
These next two sentences contain instances where the serial comma is used:
“When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the best U.S. army officers, cavalry, and artillerymen were stationed in Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to protect the five civilized Indian tribes in eastern Indian Territory from the Plainsmen tribes (Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, and Cheyenne) who roamed the plains in the west.”
“They were furious with Black Beaver, so they destroyed his house, burned his crops, kidnapped his family, and put a bounty on his.”
Keep writing the very informative blogs. I read them all with great interest and profit.

Wade Burleson said...

Byron Allen,



If I had a nickel for every typographical error I made, I'd be a millionaire!

Wade Burleson said...


I figured everyone else covered the politics of the situation. I figured we needed a little humor.

Rex Ray said...


Sorry. I guess I was in a grippe mood. Just got out of four days in a hospital with this ankle.

Rex Ray said...


But today is another day and today adds to my 8 boys and 2 girl grandchildren a great grandchild. AND IT’S A GIRL!

RB Kuter said...


Thanks also for the JFK conspiracy infor. Back in the day I thought that maybe by this time all of the files on that would have been opened, but guess it's not going to happen in this lifetime.

Christiane said...

Wade, thanks for the light note. Actually I wouldn't have minded a post about the goings-on, but it might be far too premature .... they still have to 'follow the money' and appoint an Independent Counsel before any solid resolution of 'what happened?'.

Rex Ray, I hope you feel better soon. Four days in hospital is a LOT! Congratulations on the new great-grandchild!

Good to know that, even in troubled times, life goes on;
and a new baby is a sign that God gives us to be hopeful and thankful.

My comma abuse is legendary, so I will mercifully stay off topic. :)
Love to all. And please pray for our armed forces while everything is so unstable. They don't deserve this chaos.

Rex Ray said...


Or should I say “Pa Pa”? I know we love our children, but wouldn’t it be fun to start out with GRANDCHILDREN?

Maybe in our lifetime the story of James Files will be accepted that he shot JfK and there was a conspiracy. He was in prison for shooting at detectives. He said the detectives were in unmarked car and not in uniform. The detectives started shooting first. Files and his partner thought they were Mafia.

Files did not kill JFK because he was already dead from a bullet from the ‘snipers window’. That bullet was so close to the bullet of Files it sounded like one gunshot. A move showed JFK’s head knocked forward before being knocked backward from the bullet of Files. Parts of JFK were found on Conley (governor of Teas) who was in front of JFK and parts were found on a motorcycle which was behind JFK.

Files said he was using a ‘mercury bullet’. Another bullet found in the back of JFK was a lead bullet. Since mercury is like gold which never dissolves JFK would have traces of mercury. If an autopsy was done today, and mercury was found it would prove there was more than one gunman.

Was it strange that LBJ was on the floorboard of his car BEFORE the first shot was fired? Also when he took the oath necessary to become the President he was the only one to just happen to have it in his pocket.


Yes our armed forces need prayer. My grandson is a captain in the army and came from Kuwait for his baby’s arrival.

Christiane said...

Rex Ray,
I know you're proud. I've got three family in the military and many, many who are retired, some have passed away.

It's always a good time to pray, but lately it just seems more needed. I will include your grandson in my prayers also. God Bless!

Anonymous said...


Astute post.

I, too, use the serial or "Oxford" comma for the very reasons you cited.

I am now officially in favor of your candidacy for the SBC, the US, or anything else, should you ever decide to run.


Pege' said...

Wade, Thank you!
Let's eat Grandma! Let's eat, Grandma! Punctuation SAVES LIVES! ;)

Christiane said...

A special Independent Counsel was appointed today that all Americans can respect. I hope he will be a wise steward of his office for the sake of our country. Please pray for him to be honorable and of strong character. We need for our patriotism to come to the fore in the midst of all the present chaos. God Bless our good land and its people of good will, all of them.

Unknown said...

Haha! What a great post. Thank you! I also use the serial comma. Grammarly is my best friend.

Unknown said...

thanks for the great post!