The Rationale for the Serial Comma

By Mark Nichol

Do you employ a serial comma — the final comma in a sentence such as “I bought one apple, two bananas, and three oranges”?

If your work for or with a business or organization involves publishing content in print or online, that decision has been made (or should have been made) for you in a style guide, a manual to be followed in production of all the content published by that business or organization. If you determine a business or organization’s style, or you self-publish in print or online, the decision is up to you.

In most journalistic print and online publications and in much other online content, the serial comma is omitted. (This omission is also common in British English.) However, in most books and in many other publications published in the United States, it is required.

I strongly favor the serial comma. Why?

In a sentence such as “I bought one apple, two bananas and three oranges,” no ambiguity exists. But in “I ordered ham and eggs, toast and jam and pie and ice cream,” the cavalcade of conjunctions gets confusing, and in contexts in which it’s not as clear which list items might be distinct and which might be linked, the absence of the final comma might require readers to reread the sentence to establish the organization. So, the solution in this case is to use a serial comma when confusion could arise.

That means that no-serial-comma publications will print or post “I bought one apple, two bananas and three oranges” but “I ordered ham and eggs, toast and jam, and pie and ice cream.” The resulting obvious question is why not, for the sake of consistency, just insert a serial comma in all cases?

Another complication is illustrated in this well-known hypothetical statement: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Without the serial comma, the statement could be read as acknowledging four entities: two parents, an author, and a deity. But it could also refer to two parents, one of whom is an author and other of whom is a deity. Again, the presence of the serial comma eliminates the ambiguity.

This issue may seem trivial, but the English language is constructed of myriad trivialities that combine into an imperfect system but one that has supported the world’s predominant language. (Yes, twice as many people speak Mandarin as English, but my reference point is global significance.)

Commas are an abundant resource, and you can pull any ordinary one out of your comma bucket to serve as a serial comma.

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28 Responses to “The Rationale for the Serial Comma”

  • Dave Spart

    Writing from the UK, where the serial comma is generally less pervasive, I find:

    “I bought one apple, two bananas, and three oranges”

    – staccato and slightly unpleasant.

    I’d be happy for the serial comma to be added ONLY where not using it would introduce ambiguity. There’s nothing to be gained from ‘consistency’.

  • Scott Mellon

    Funny, I read this sentence
    “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
    to mean that the writer’s parents were Ayn Rand and God. Ayn would cringe at the thought.

  • Steve Dyson

    What I can’t get my head around is why you seek a general rule on a topic that doesn’t need a general rule. Surely it is simple enough to use a serial (aka Oxford) comma when needed and not when not.

    I advocate the same pragmatism when it comes to putting quotation marks before or after a punctuation mark. There’s no need for a general rule, just a quick analysis of what suits the situation.

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    I love the serial comma, and I don’t care who knows it. Like the slogan says, “Commas Save Lives: ‘Let’s eat grandpa. vs. Let’s eat, grandpa.'”

    Use them, save your grandparents.

  • Gordon Havens

    Great article; it made me a believer in serial commas, but only in a handful of amusing exceptions. Otherwise, the conjunctions AND and OR serve well for the final superfluous comma, thank you muchly.

  • Merita King

    I abhor 99% of serial commas, being English, but there are one or two situations where they do prevent confusion. Love the dedication by the way.

  • Klg

    Why the need to be “consistent” with serial commas when nothing else in the English language is consistent? I use it when it is necessary for the meaning, which you illustrated nicely, but I don’t use it when the meaning is clear without it.

  • Bill

    The example I’ve often seen citing the serial comma’s importance is the one of a will: “My estate is to be divided equally among Susan, John, Sam and Bill.” That could lead to Susan and John each getting a third, while Sam and Bill are left with one sixth apiece.
    In your ham and eggs food example, you could clear it up without a comma: “I ordered ham and eggs, toast and jam and pie ala mode.”

  • No_imaginative_nickname

    Many sentences are ambiguous, with or without a serial comma. They are best resolved through rewriting. “I ordered ham and eggs, toast with jam and pie with ice cream.” “I dedicate this book to my parents, to Ayn Rand and to God. To add the so-called serial comma to either of these sentences would be superfluous and redundant.

  • Lady_D

    I favor the use of the serial comma where, as in your latter examples, it can clear up any ambiguity. I do not favor the uselessness of putting a serial comma in your first example, “I bought one apple, two bananas and three oranges,” where it’s clearly not needed. I guess you could say that, where punctuation is concerned, I am a minimalist. Too many commas can be as confusing to me as elimination of the serial comma could be in some of your examples.

  • Amanda Logan O’Brien

    I’m very pro comma, as a general rule! While an addition of a comma isn’t going to solve all ambiguity issues, but it certainly can be of help!

    Please also let the record show: I am always in favor of “ala mode.” That’s more of a lifestyle choice as opposed to a grammatical one, though!

  • thebluebird11

    No fan of the serial comma here, unless to disambiguate a sentence. Not feeling the need to be consistent; let’s not forget this is English, where we almost pride ourselves on a lack of consistency (look at the pronunciation of the diphthong “ough,” as in enough, through, though, bough, etc).
    To me, anything extra is just clutter. If absolutely necessary, better to revise the sentences a la No_imaginitive_nickname.

  • Amanda

    I use the AP standard which omits the serial comma except in the case where it is needed for clarity. As a grammar stickler, this seems to work well. My assumption on the omission of the serial comma in publications is to save a bit of space as well as for the same reasons that there are no longer two spaces between sentences. If that is the case, while rewriting would work, you would save more space and characters (important in SEO) by adding the comma where necessary.

  • Mark Nichol

    Klg:

    Punctuation should always be internally consistent within a given piece of content and, ideally, in one publication. The rules of punctuation have nothing to do with the vagaries of spelling and usage and everything to do with clarity of grammar and syntax.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bill:

    The sentence “My estate is to be divided equally among Susan, John, Sam and Bill” is not ambiguous; it is incorrect if Sam and Bill are intended to be treated as separate entities. (In that case, write, “My estate is to be divided equally among Susan, John, and Sam and Bill.”) If you are referring to four recipients, write “My estate is to be divided equally among Susan, John, Sam, and Bill” or “My estate is to be divided equally among Susan, John, Sam and Bill” depending on whether your style includes serial commas or not.

  • Robinoz

    I was taught to place a comma before “and” if three successive commas were used in a sentence ie, “We had gathered, roses, dahlias, pansies, and Sturt desert peas.” If the word pansies hadn’t been included, it would have just read “… dahlias and Sturt desert peas.”

    I use a comma in those instances and in others where I feel it will provide the wrong meaning if I don’t use a comma.

  • Craig Hart

    I’ve long loved the serial (some call it the Oxford) comma. I feel that it not only helps make intent clear in a sentence, but also creates a better rhythm in a list of items. This could just be a personal preference, but I feel that a non-serial comma list seems rushed at the end. For example, “a banana, an orange, a pearandagrapefruit.” Whereas, if a comma is inserted after “pear,” it just sounds better to my internal ear.

  • graeme

    My favourite case is the shopkeeper giving instructions to the signwriter that he required a bigger space between FISH and AND and AND and CHIPS. Put your commas where you wish.

  • Tina

    My belief is when most people see a comma after ‘and’, they see it as incorrect. In a list, they see ‘and’ and ‘,’ as one and the same, so in the ham and egg sentence example, the understanding (for most people) is as intended in the writing. So I do understand those who don’t like the serial comma.

    Even still – I always use the serial comma! I love less punctuation in our writing but I am a total serial comma convert 🙂 I have been known to relent and not use it, but will certainly stand firm if there is any possible ambiguity should it be not used.

  • A. Colin

    What a silly meal the second example makes! You are so busy “anding” us to death you forgot to choose a better example. Nobody orders combinations of food without commas separating the groups. It is “ham and eggs, toast and jam, WITH pie and ice cream.” Eschew redundancy I say over and over.

    There is no rule limiting food orders to ONLY two commas. With cereal or NOT. The real issue is the last comma. It is really necessary to take a visual breath before adding one more item? It depends on the group. Add cereal and whole milk to your order and you need another, final comma. But add “tea, cream and sugar” to the end of order, and you do NOT. In fact, many people are perfectly comfortable ordering “ham and eggs, toast and jam, cereal and milk, pie and ice cream, with tea, cream and sugar.” Bon appetit!

  • Rich Wheeler

    Commaphobes (or comma snobs) fail to grasp that the issue is not about whether one CAN disambiguate the meaning, but about whether the omission will require pausing to analyze the meaning.

    While English allows flexibility due to its diverse roots (I reject calling it inconsistency), structures such as lists call for less flexibility. If one’s only reader shall be oneself or an AP keystroke-miser, go ahead and create ambiguity. If not and one respects the reader’s time, one should use the serial comma.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rich:

    Excellent point — thanks for adding that to the discussion.

  • Vasan Subramanian

    I used to use the serial comma, not because I was taught, but instinctively. Couple of times, my wife pointed it out and said, “You don’t use a comma before an ‘and'”. I agreed, but unless I was extremely cautious, the comma kept slipping into my writing.

    When I dug deep into my own mind as to why I was using the comma, I found that I was using it to indicate a minor pause if I were to speak the sentence. My guess is that unless my wife is proof-reading or editing she wouldn’t notice the serial comma — perhaps even welcome it — because it flows naturally.

    In any case, this post is some ammunition the next time my wife points it out while proof-reading my writing!

  • Julie the Jarhead

    I love the serial comma. It makes my sentences clearer, my thoughts more organized, and my life complete.

  • sb

    I was taught to use the Oxford comma some 40 years ago and no matter how often I see it omitted, it just looks sloppy, lazy, and just plain wrong to me.

    I love lists, I love clarity, and I especially love consistency.

  • Michael W. Perry

    In the past, I’ve not used a serial comma for short lists like “Joe, Bill and Tom.” In those cases that extra comma looks tacky. For lists with multi-word items, I have used it, such as: a great big house, a flock of geese, and towering tree. I think that adds a bit of clarity and doesn’t look tacky.

    Having always or never rules for a house style makes no sense. Even if a serial comma isn’t ordinarily used it (and other punctuation) should be there when it’s needed to prevent confusion. No rule can justify bad writing.

    –Michael W. Perry, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girls Guide to Hospitals

  • Mark Nichol

    Michael:

    Always-or-never is the raison d’etre of house style — the document signifies the effort of a particular publication or organization to consistently adhere (as much as possible) to a particular set of guidelines. Unless publications follow AP style, they will, almost invariably, treat “Joe, Bill, and Tom” and “a great big house, a flock of geese, and a towering tree” identically.

  • LB

    Several commentators have said that they use serial commas when needed, but otherwise don’t use them. This is a serious mistake. I believe that serial commas should always be used, because using them never creates ambiguity, while not using them often does. However, writers shouldn’t just pick and choose when to use them or not; once a style is selected, it needs to be used consistently. What if the writer thinks the sentence doesn’t need a serial comma, but the reader misunderstands the meaning because the sentence really does? For example, the meaning of this law hinges on the comma (or lack thereof): “To support transit in urban areas containing a population greater than 25,000, where the area is already served by a public transit system or where a determination has been made that a public transit system is feasible, local governments shall adopt land use and subdivision regulations as provided in (a)–(g) below.” As written, with no serial comma, it seems that the regulations (a-g) would only apply to areas with populations over 25k, that ALSO have transit or could feasibly have transit. However, if a serial comma is added, then the regulations would apply to any community that meets one of the three conditions (population over 25k, has public transit, or public transit is feasible), with the latter two conditions being independent of the size of the community. It turns out that the serial comma is not used in this document (much to the confusion of city governments trying to understand it). But if the author picks and chooses when to use a serial comma, then how are we to know that the lack of one in this sentence is intended or not? It could be the author’s judgment call, or a typo – and legal writing is full of typos, so that’s not out of the question. Quite a lot of time has been spent discussing the meaning and intent of this law – time that would have been saved if the serial comma had simply been the required style for the document.

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