Serial comma in UIs?

8 Mar 2012 - 11:54am
2 years ago
15 replies
1210 reads
David Birnbaum
2009

Hello everyone,

I'm wondering whethere there is an established convention about using serial commas in lists of items in UI text strings. To be more specific, I'm working on Android.

This is a serial comma (the comma preceding "and"): "Portugal, Spain, and France"

The same string without the serial comma: "Portugal, Spain and France"

I prefer the serial comma, but one of the arguments made against it is that it can add uneccesary bulk to the text, which is certainly a concern with small mobile screens.

Any opinions or resources would be greatly appreciated.

Come to think of it, a more general question: Is there a style guide for UIs that addresses punctuation?

Thanks in advance!

Comments

8 Mar 2012 - 12:20pm
wraevn
2010

As a general rule I NEVER include the serial comma as you call it (the comma preceding an and) in ANY form of my writing, including UIs. I omit it because a) it's optional/unneccessary, b) when I read or speak a sentence like this outloud there is no pause before the 'and' - so omitting the serial comma makes it sound more like natural speech. Reason b can be argued depending on dramatic interpretation, but generally, less is more - especially when it comes to punctuation (especially commas). (he said in a post fraught with tons of commas, parentheses and dashes) :-P

B

8 Mar 2012 - 12:28pm
Kivi Shapiro
2007

Whereas I ALWAYS use it.  As you might guess, this is basically a religious issue.

Kivi

8 Mar 2012 - 12:33pm
fj
2010

If you are worried about a simple piece of punctuation making your UI too bulky, you have basically lost the internationalization game: German and Greek add, as a rule of thumb, 20% of characters from an English translation.

8 Mar 2012 - 12:35pm
William Hudson
2009

David -

In these parts (Oxford) it's known as the Oxford comma - I guess since Cambridge University tends to have their own, different, rules. Mostly the Oxford comma is somewhat old-fashioned (in my view), but it does have a use when your items might include the word 'and'. So 'Portual, Spain, Turks and Caicos, and France'. However, I mentioned the redundancy of the Oxford comma to a group of academics just last week and got a fairly strong reaction supporting it, so I guess it depends on who you ask.

Punctuation really is a question of house style. For example, newspapers like The Guardian have really minimized their use of punctuation and capitalization. I think that is probably the trend. I wouldn't add the Oxford comma unless the situation demanded it.

Regards,

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Syntagm Ltd
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8 Mar 2012 - 12:46pm
philipbrook
2008

The comma ought to 'stand in' for a missing 'and' in this instance.

Apples and pears and bananas

becomes:

Apples, pears and bananas

More common in the US to drop in the additional comma but it's not quite right:-

Apples and pears and and bananas

Check out weighty legal docs and you'll often see very few commas but lots of repeated 'or' and 'and'

If apples and pears were a 'bundle' (therfore making them a single entity) then you'd pop in a comma to signal that fact. Some list ought really to to have semi-colons if there are lots of 'bundles'. Kinda fallen out of use nowadays because we use dot points or commas.

8 Mar 2012 - 12:46pm
philipbrook
2008

The comma ought to 'stand in' for a missing 'and' in this instance.

Apples and pears and bananas

becomes:

Apples, pears and bananas

More common in the US to drop in the additional comma but it's not quite right:-

Apples and pears and and bananas

Check out weighty legal docs and you'll often see very few commas but lots of repeated 'or' and 'and'

If apples and pears were a 'bundle' (therfore making them a single entity) then you'd pop in a comma to signal that fact. Some list ought really to to have semi-colons if there are lots of 'bundles'. Kinda fallen out of use nowadays because we use dot points or commas.

8 Mar 2012 - 1:06pm
David Birnbaum
2009

Thanks to all for the quick responses.

I'm very familiar with strong religious feelings about punctuation (I harbor many myself), and did not intend to provoke a rehashing here. Arguments for both sides are made concisely on the wikipedia page for serial commas.

My questions were more specific, here's a restatement:

* Is there an established convention (i.e., a recommendation by some kind of international body) that puts forth a best practice regarding serial commas for use in interactive UIs, in International English?

* Is there an Android style guide that provides guidance on language, wording, punctuation?

* More generally, is there a UI style guide that deals with punctuation? All "style gudes" having to do with writing are about writing prose or reports. And all "style guides" having to do with UIs are about graphical design elements.

Thanks again!

8 Mar 2012 - 6:05pm
pabini
2004

Hi David
I'm a purist when it comes to punctuation and, for me, the simple argument of consistency is the determining factor in such matters. As a result of ignorance due to poor education, the use punctuation in general has now deteriorated to the point that much of the prose that I read is now much harder to read. Lack of punctuation causes parsing errors.
Using a serial comma is standard practice in the US, so when writing for this audience you should consistently use the serial comma. There are style guides beyond number that would tell you this, including the Apple Publications Style Guide and the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications—though the latter doesn't refer to it by name. I've always followed these guides for the correct use of terminology when doing UX design, including what to call various types of UI controls. 
I don't think there is or should be an international body that dictates the use of English internationally—just as I doubt Italian or Chinese people would want an international body to dictate the use of their own language. But it's my observation that the use of American English is more prevalent on the Web. For example, The Web Style Guide doesn't comment on the use of American or British English or the use of punctuation, but it's written in American English and uses the serial comma. If I were publishing primarily for a British audience, I'd use British English. But I'm not, so our UXmatters Guidelines for Style and Usage includes a long list of British English to avoid when writing for UXmatters.
Hope this helps.
Regards, Pabini
_____________________
Pabini Gabriel-Petit
Publisher & Editor in ChiefUXmatterswww.uxmatters.com
Founding Director of IxDA
IxDA Local Leader for Silicon Valley



On Mar 8, 2012, at 12:15 PM, David Birnbaum wrote:

Thanks to all for the quick responses.

I'm very familiar with strong religious feelings about punctuation (I harbor many myself), and did not intend to provoke a rehashing here. Arguments for both sides are made concisely on the wikipedia page for serial commas [1].

My questions were more specific, here's a restatement:

* Is there an established convention (i.e., a recommendation by some kind of international body) that puts forth a best practice regarding serial commas for use in interactive UIs, in International English?

* Is there an Android style guide that provides guidance on language, wording, punctuation?

* More generally, is there a UI style guide that deals with punctuation? All "style gudes" having to do with writing are about writing prose or reports. And all "style guides" having to do with UIs are about graphical design elements.

Thanks again!

(((P
8 Mar 2012 - 1:28pm
Michael McWatters
2009

Regardless of whether or not the UI Guidelines require a serial comma, common sense / user experience should trump the rules.

If you had a list that was completely, utterly ambiguious without a serial / Oxford comma, then by all means you should include one.

For example, "We provide services in Haiti, Jamaica and Turks and Caicos." This is a real example from a recent project, where the locations were populated in alpha order. We realized that there were some locations that were compound named (e.g., Turks and Caicos), so we decided serial commas would be more helpful.

8 Mar 2012 - 1:31pm
Larry Tesler
2004

Some companies have internal style guides.The Yahoo! Style Guide is available on the web and as a printed book.

The Yahoo! guidelines call for serial commas.

In most prose, I don't think it matters one way or the other. But a user interface message needs to be easily read and understood. If a serial comma helps to clarify the meaning, facilitate parsing or indicate an intended pause, I may include it. Usually, I feel that it interrupts the flow and I leave it out. If the comma would cause a line break in an undesirable place or space is at a premium, I'm even more likely to leave it out.

8 Mar 2012 - 2:07pm
Jack L. Moffett
2005

And then there's this: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3438

8 Mar 2012 - 2:49pm
cfmdesigns
2004

There is no style guide for this I've heard of that covers entire platforms.  (They know better!)  It is left to the individual products.  

  • If you have a preference for it, put it in.  If you have a preference for not having it, don't put it in.
  • If you don't put it in by default, be sure that you validate any place where it could go wrong to avoid confusion spots. (You've seen the meme pics, I'm sure.)
  • Be internally consistent, whatever choice you make.
And finally, if someone quacks about wanting it in, put it in.  Even if "technically" optional, it isn't optional for that person; that's why they quacked.  You'll save more time by just putting it in than having the fight every time it comes up.
(As someone who wants it in but who doesn't ususally have control of the content, though, I've learned to save time for the team by not caring and not complaining.  "Broken gets fixed, but shoddy is forever." If they prefer shoddy, let them have it. Where I can control it, I can put it in; where I can't, I only complain if there's a real problem.)

-- Jim

8 Mar 2012 - 3:03pm
Dave Jones
2010

I don't know if there's an accepted standard, but the previous post (while hilarious) illustrates the important

point. The Oxford Comma's purpose is delineate between serially listed items in a sentence where all those items cannot be easily distinguished via other context clues. For instance, writing "Spain, Portugal and France" doesn't often lead to confusion for English speakers because most know these are separate countries. In other cases, the delineation may not be so obvious or clear. Leaving the comma out can turn what is supposed to be a serial list into something else entirely.

In general, I keep it in unless there is some sort of compelling reason not to and the context of the meaning is relatively clear (both are judgement calls, really). 

8 Mar 2012 - 7:02pm
Alan Hogan
2007

… when I read or speak a sentence like this outloud [sic] there is no pause before the 'and' - so omitting the serial comma makes it sound more like natural speech.

Argh. Commas are not defined as “punctuation used to make a reader give a short pause.” If one is writing poetry, one may invent their own rules; but in this context, English grammar has rules about these things with just a little bit more nuance than that.

Per Wikipedia: “The comma is used in many contexts and languages, principally for separating things.”

One will note that this is essentially the rationale for the serial comma; it can reduce ambiguity by cleanly separating things.

16 Mar 2012 - 6:03pm
pmooney
2010

The first rule of any Style Guide is that comprehension trumps everything, including consistency, therefore any rule in the Style Guide can be broken if following the rule would create ambiguity. If you choose a Style Guide that says not to use an Oxford/serial comma, but omitting it in a specific case could cause the reader to misunderstand the text's meaning, then use it anyway. In fact, most Style Guides will already say to do this. 

1) Choose a specific Style Guide (AP, Chicago, Yahoo, etc.) -- and define any special rules or exceptions for your specific project

2) Comprehension trumps consistency -- but only break a rule if it prevents confusion

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