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The Serial Comma (And Other Stylistic Choices)

While the rules of grammar are widely agreed upon, the correct written form of English can often vary. The AP or associated press style is usually considered to be the benchmark for general interest written material, although alterations to certain stylistic elements are not uncommon, depending on the publication outlet. Academic papers usually follow a combination of the AP style and a specific citing method, such as the University of Chicago citation guide or the Harvard Citation Guide. The wide variety of overlapping styles has created a few hot points of contention among editors, writers, and publishers.

1. The Serial Comma

Perhaps one of the most widely contested style choices is the use of the serial, or Oxford, comma. The serial comma is used to separate three or more elements in a list. Consider these examples:

1. He bought apples, pears, and eggs. (Serial Comma)
2. He bought apples, pears and eggs. (AP Style)

Many in the industry argue that the serial comma adds a certain grace and ease to sentences by giving the reader and writer a clean visual separation between different elements. Those who are opposed to the serial comma argue that it is unnecessary and clutters up the sentence. As a writer, you will undoubtedly encounter editors who are both passionately for and against its use during your career. Try to be accepting of other people’s differences, no matter what your own personal feelings on the subject may be.

2. Spelling of Symbols

Another touchy point is the wisdom of spelling out certain symbols in text. As an example, the AP style guides writers to use the % sign instead of manually typing out “percent.” Similarly, writers are advised to use currency symbols, like $ or £, instead of writing out “dollars” or “pounds.” In most cases, the AP style makes the most sense, as it encourages brevity and eliminates redundancy. However, for obscure currencies or symbols, typing out a small explanation afterwards can greatly aid the reader in understanding what the writer is talking about.

These explanations, while frowned upon by editors, are occasionally greatly illuminating to readers. They should generally be placed within parenthesis following the symbol to alert the reader that they are an additional explanatory element. Writers should use this construction sparingly, if at all.

3. The En vs. Em Dash

The Em dash is a slightly longer version of the En dash, and has a completely different use. The Em dash signals a thoughtful pause–for example, just now–allowing the writer to emphasize a point. The En dash is used generally as a hyphen, as in this point-blank example.

It is very easy for writers to mix up the two types of dashes. Many editors, almost regardless of what style they follow, do not bother to differentiate between the two dash lengths. However, if at all possible, writers should try to use the longer Em dashes for pauses and the shorter En dashes for hyphens. Virtue, as they say, is its own reward.

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