The Harvard Comma

In the spring semester of my junior year, I took a class called Communication and Public Relations in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.  In case you didn’t click on any of the links above, here’s the course description:

Public relations means different things to different people but it has one undeniable element: communication. This course is concerned with arranging, handling, and evaluating public relations programs. Students work with actual case histories and deal with contemporary topics such as the use of the computer in public relations.

So what does this mean?  Basically it was a course that taught you how to write a press release.  Now for those of you who haven’t written one before, the press release is unlike other forms of written material.  It’s written in AP style, which is also used by journalists; the logic being that reporters won’t have to rewrite your release for their publication.  It’s a bit tricky to learn, and I’m not sure I could just jump back into writing press releases – in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of using semicolons and multi-part sentences, and press releases require short, clear writing.  But I’d probably be able to muddle through if I had to, I suppose.

Anyway, I do remember two things that my professor (who shall remain nameless) insisted upon.  The first was the fact that there is no such thing as the “first annual” event.  You have the first event and the second annual, but she continually reminded us that there is no such thing as the first annual.  Now the web seems to be on the fence, but I’m kind of okay with this.  But what she stressed even more was the frequent usage of the so called “Harvard comma.”  The Harvard comma, also known as the serial comma, is the comma used before the “or” or “and” in a series.  Example:

The dog, the cat, and the bird

I’m someone who was taught to use the serial comma in grade school, so this aggravated me a little bit.  It took a while for me to get used to not using it when I was writing press releases, but eventually I got the hang of it.  But in the year or so since this class ended, I’ve found myself jumping back and forth – sometimes using it, sometimes not.  It gets kind of frustrating when I’m writing a paper (or a blog post) and in the span of a couple of paragraphs my hands type this supposedly superfluous comma just before the conjunction in a series to not including it at all.  Which isn’t really a big deal I suppose, but it’s just something I happen to notice.  So which one do you use?