The Serial Comma is OK with Me

By Maeve Maddox

After a lifetime of being wishy-washy about the serial comma, I’ve reached a decision: I’m going to use it all the time.

Such a momentous decision is, of course, a deeply personal matter. The pros and cons are widely, frequently, and hotly debated.

Here is some information that may enable you to make the decision for yourself, if you haven’t already done so.

serial comma: (also Oxford comma) n. a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect). —Penguin Writer’s Manual.

Oxford comma: n. [after the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press] a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items. —OED

Some writers call the Oxford comma the “Harvard comma.”

Here’s a sentence with a serial comma: The Three Stooges are Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Here it is without a serial comma: The Three Stooges are Larry, Moe and Curly.

PRO serial comma
The Chicago Manual of Style (2009)

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities… 6.19

The Elements of Style (2000)

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

The stated rule seems ambiguous to me, but the examples that follow it are clear:

red, white, and blue
gold, silver, or copper

Gregg Reference Manual (1993)

When three or more items are listed in a series, and the last item is preceded by and, or, or nor, place a comma before the conjunction as well as between the other items.

CON serial comma
 AP Stylebook (2009)

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series:
The flag is red, white and blue.
He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

AP does allow a comma before and when ambiguity would result without one:

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction:
I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997)

Note also that it is not usual in British usage to put a listing comma before the word and or or itself (though American usage regularly puts one there.) So, in British usage, it is not usual to write The Three Musketeers were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

On the fence regarding the serial comma
Penguin Writer’s Manual (2002)

It is becoming more common in British English (and is usual in American English) to place a comma before the and that precedes the final item in a simple list (numbers one, two, three, and four).

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965)
In promoting the use of the serial comma, CMOS observes that the usage is “blessed by Fowler” among other authorities. However, when I looked up the topic in Fowler (1965 edition) I found this remark, which seems neutral at best:

The more usual way of punctuating such an enumeration as was used as an example in the preceding section is French, German, Italian and Spanish; the commas between French and German and German and Italian take the place of ands; there is no comma after Italian because, with and, it would be otiose [having no practical function; redundant; superfluous]. There are, however, some who favour putting one there, arguing that, since it may sometimes be needed to avoid ambiguity it may as well be used always for the sake of uniformity.

So there you have it. My choice is to travel the path of otiosity for the sake of uniformity. What’s yours?

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44 Responses to “The Serial Comma is OK with Me”

  • WDF

    I am with you … go with the serial comma.

  • Shane

    I feel that the serial comma ‘looks’ more appropriate when used in shorter lists, (ie – Tom, Dick, and Harry) but I find I prefer not to use it on longer ones (ie – milk, cookies, bread, cheese and potatoes). I’m not sure where I developed this preference, but I have always used thatbas my standard (if that can truly be called a ‘stabdard’).

  • Peter Garner

    Hallelujah. I made the same decision a few years ago and I’ve never looked back.

  • Eugene

    I use the serial comma since I was in grade school. Then again, we are taught American English.

    Anyway, the Wikipedia article on the “serial comma” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma) provides plenty of examples of ambiguities that are added/resolved with the use/non-use of the serial comma.

    The Wikipedia Manual of Style (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:MOS#Serial_commas) accepts either use/non-use of the comma as long as it is consistent in a single article and all ambiguities are resolved.

  • Brad K.

    1) I like using the comma. But – do I now have to remember to call it either a serial comma, a Havard comman, an Oxford comma, or can I just think of is as the comma after every list item but the last one?

    2) Penultimate – the one before the last – strikes me. I just got done watching the Monty Python skit on the Pope meeting Michelangelo, complaining about the first attempt at “The Last Supper”. Eric Idle suggests that the plethora of extra characters not present at the Last Supper might have been there at the Last Supper less one – the Penultimate Supper. Artistic license might apply, since there is no description of the Penultimate Supper. John Cleese (Pope) doesn’t buy the offered renaming. So I did remember “penultimate” when I encountered that seldom-used (in my life) word.

    I can still hear Eric, “How about The Penultimate Supper, then? If there was a Last Supper, there must have been a Penultimate Supper!”

  • Rhonda

    Hurray! I’ve always used the serial comma, and have no plans to stop.

  • Jimmy Jet

    If you speak it with a pause, it needs a comma (or other similar element). Simple enough.

  • Wes

    I have always been a serial comma user, because that’s the way I was taught. I feel it reflects the natural pause when reading the sentence aloud. However, the editor for my most recent book was a “serial comma killer” and removed all of them from my manuscript. Unfortunately, I have succumbed to the influence of this editor and started to remove my habitual serial commas whenever I think to do it (essentially at random).

    Glad to see that you have set the record straight. Now I can go back to doing things in my accustomed manner.

  • Nelida K.

    Serial (or Oxford, or Harvard) comma.

    Count me in. I use it all the time. I think that not using it, (when, as so aptly suggested by Jimmy Jet, you do pause in speech at that very place in the sentence) is what creates ambiguity, not the other way round.

  • Kim Tyndall

    I was taught that the extra comma was dropped during the war years to save on ink. Since this is no longer a sacrifice to a war effort, it is proper to return the serial comma to its rightful place. Anyone else taught that?

  • Deborah

    “Newspaper” punctuation and proper English (American) punctuation are two different things. Newspapers lust for space. Every unnecessary space or comma is wasted money. That’s why newspapers would formerly hyphenate words in the middle of a syllable, and skip the serial comma, among other tricks to keep from wasting space.

    Now newspapers use computer-generated “ready to paste” copy, with proportional spacing and a system that will let you add or decrease spacing and font size by a fraction of a point, to make the copy fit in the space allowed.

    But old habits die hard, and I still struggle to include that last comma in my writing.

  • Ellen

    I’m a convert to the serial comma. I didn’t use it for years, but started to do it when I worked with a number of people who were not native English speakers. To avoid confusion, I started using it and have become an enthusiastic supporter. It’s not always strictly necessary, but it readily eliminates confusion.

  • Kathy

    I was taught not to use the comma before the conjunction in a series when I was in school (Dark Ages); however, as an English teacher in FL, we saw this final comma added as a rule in the grammar texts used, and found it was also a ‘rule’ tested on state exams. So, for over 20 yrs. now, I have retrained myself to use the serial comma. I am retired now, but I do a lot of editing in my new work, and I use the serial comma. I also notice that it is used fairly uniformly in print these days.

  • Precise Edit

    I always use the serial comma.

    Here’s the reason. Our first task as editors is to improve reader understanding. Sometimes items in lists are complicated and comprise two or more other items. Without that comma, the reader may have difficulty understanding how the items are grouped. For example:

    “Mary saw me, Bob and Tom, and Frank walking in her direction with amorous looks in our eyes.”

    With the comma after Tom the reader knows that Bob and Tom are walking together and that Frank and I are walking alone. Without the comma, the sentence is still correct, though clumsy, but it conveys a different meaning. The sentence

    “Mary saw me, Bob and Tom and Frank walking in her direction with amorous looks in our eyes”

    no longer tells the reader that Bob and Tom are together or that Frank and I are walking alone.

    Some people say that writers should simply add the comma when it improves understanding but that they don’t need it otherwise. Since we believe that punctuation use should be consistent (i.e., not changing from sentence to sentence), we always add that comma.

    As I tell people who attend my writing courses, “What we do sometimes for clarity we do all the time for consisitency.”

  • Miriam

    In the absence of a serial comma:

    I’d like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand.

    ‘nuf said.

  • ChrisB

    I’ve always loved that classic justification for the serial comma:

    “I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Mother Theresa.”

    ‘Nuf said.

  • ChrisB

    Miriam’s comment wasn’t there when I started typing. Spooky.

    You can delete mine if you wish.

  • kiwiflossnz

    Brilliant! I’ve agonised for years about when to and when not to use comma’s. I used both options but I think going forward I will stick with the serial comma. It seems to make more sense to me.

  • Tony Hearn

    Looks as though this one will run and run. As long as, it seems, there are two different standards being taught, then we shall have two equally ‘correct’ ways of doing it.
    For the record, I was taught not to use the serial comma before and/or, except to avoid ambiguity. This most often happens when the last two items in the list are themselves paired, eg. ‘For breakfast I had bacon, fried bread, hash browns, and bread and butter’; or where the list is clausal: ‘He got off the bus, turned round, thought for a moment, and walked slowly down the hill.’ Otherwise the comma is redundant.
    Both systems are inherently consistent. The one that consistently requires the final serial comma is perhaps easier for those who are too hurried to think about meaning too deeply, or for whom English as a second language is already difficult enough. As more frequently an American preference it is likely, for better or worse, to be eschewed on principle by many on the British side of the Atlantic!

  • John

    At least one famous English writer went with the Oxford comma (although probably not the Harvard comma).

    Colin Dexter dedicated “The Remorseful Day”, one of his Inspector Morse novels wit the following:

    For George, Hilary, Maria, and Beverley (Please note the Oxford comma)

  • Larry Sanguinetti

    Thanks for the support on this very contentious issue!

    I decided long ago that the benefit of using the serial comma for both consistency and clarity far outweighed the benefit of not using it. The recommendation that it only be used in cases of ambiguity seems awfully ambiguous in itself.

    My only question is how does the ampersand figure into all of this (usually in marketing-related content)? I tend to break my own rule and not use the serial comma when an ampersand is used in place of the conjoining “and.”

  • Chase March

    When I first read the title to the post, I thought it was about people who use commas too often. I thought that probably applied to me. I love commas.

    I always use the serial comma. I remember that I didn’t use to, until a university professor told me that a comma was supposed to go before the “and.” I’ve used it ever since and think that it is great.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    I converted years ago. Life is much simpler now.

    I work as a freelancer, mostly with publishers of legal and academic materials; and they all call for the serial comma.

    When I do my “easy,” for-fun reading (sometimes paperbacks published by, e.g., Signet, Pocket, etc.), I get so distracted because they usually don’t use serial commas. Also, they often don’t use a comma in compound sentences. Shriek!

    (It’s tough being a copyeditor.)

  • Kevin @ Blog Tipz

    The serial comma has always made more sense, as you are including a third item, but I still see a lot of people using the Oxford comma. As long as you are consistent in all your work, it might not matter as much, as they are both usually accepted.

  • Peggye

    I like serial commas; I grew up with serial commas. A sentence is naked and confusing to me when they are not used. I wonder if the popularity of the Oxford comma style in current print and webpages is more of a money matter because there are fewer keystrokes and less ink required. Oxford comma style is my second pet peave. My first is a missing comma in a compound sentence.

  • Peggye

    I just read Deborah’s comments about newspaper print, so it sounds like these publishers have played a role in killing serial commas. I have often tried to remember what were the newspapers’ practices when I was growing up. I tend to think they must have used serial commas a few decades ago, as I would have noticed that the newsprint I was reading was far different from what I was being taught. I often mentally thank my many teachers who were relentless in their desire to impart proper grammer.

  • Henry Pratt

    In the course of your well-honed article is the comment, “CMOS observes that the usage is ‘blessed by Fowler’ among other authorities. However, when I looked up the topic in Fowler (1965 edition) I found this remark, which seems neutral at best…”

    I think that a reference to “Fowler,” with no other qualification, as in “blessed by Fowler,” should be reserved for the original 1926 edition. The 1965 second edition that the article cites and that some modern authorities prefer, is partly Gowers.

    On that view, “Fowler’s” recommendation is firm and clear: “The only rule that will obviate such uncertainties [which he enumerates in the previous paragraphs] is that after every item including the last, unless a heavier stop is needed for independent reasons, the comma should be used….”

    Despite Sir Ernest’s seeming neutrality and the recent preference for light punctuation, those of us who were weaned on “Fowler” (1926) have followed his recommendation.

  • Greg

    I use the serial comma – always have and always will. In fact, it annoys me to no end when others don’t.

  • Leisureguy

    Serial comma always. I used to keep a little list of ambiguities that result from its omission.

  • Kristin

    I go with the majority here—I always use the serial comma. But my example (having to do with screws, washers, and nuts and bolts) is nowhere near as good as those from Miriam and ChrisB, which I had never heard. I’ll use those when explaining from now on!

  • Deano

    Viva la Oxford comma! I want to note it as my religion at the next census. I wish more people could read this page so they can understand what we are going through wrt consistency and clarity. Rock on!

  • Deano

    Can you nest Oxford commas? I’ve just seen this sentence: “Any change which may affect the provision of services to customers, including hardware; communications equipment and software; system software; application software in production; standard operating environments; documentation; and procedures associated with the operation, support, and maintenance of systems within the operational environment”. The last semi-colon is a rule I believe that is required in lists, but the last comma is an Oxford comma in the last item of the semi-colon list. I’m not sure if this sentence is grammatically correct as both semi-colons and commas are used – maybe only one is allowed, but I think this would have to depend on the sentence?

    I’m not sure of the difference with oxford commas and serial commas as stated by Peggye and Kevin? Peggye has interchanged these words, while Kevin has stated: “The serial comma has always made more sense, as you are including a third item, but I still see a lot of people using the Oxford comma” – what is the difference? I’m confused. The next sentence: ” As long as you are consistent in all your work, it might not matter as much, as they are both usually accepted.” I thought they were the same thing unless you are saying to not use Oxford commas vs using them are accepted?

  • Loryn

    “And” does the job of the last comma, so it’s unnecessary. It feels awkward for me to add the last comma. I don’t think, feel or find that it’s necessary. There is no ambiguity without it. Why use it? Of course, be aware that some English professors could count it wrong, even if you’re consistent. I would ask ahead of time.

  • Ram

    I opine that the last comma before “and” is used only to differentiate between the last two items in the list. For example, The three amigos were Tom, Dick, and Harry. In this sentence, Dick and Harry are not related to each other and make separate entities. Hence, a comma is used before the conjunction.

    However, the last comma is not used in certain cases to indicate the relationship between the last two items in the list. For example, I had an omelette, juice, bread and butter for breakfast. Here, comma is not used before the conjunction to explain the connectivity between bread and butter.

    Can someone clarify if my understanding is correct?

  • Bennie

    Deano, there is no difference. Harvard, Oxford, list, listing, serial, series – it’s the same thing.

    There isn’t any issue with using both semi-colons and commas in your example – if you think of the last bit ‘and procedures…’ as being a sub-list of the main one, then it follows that this must take commas (although the one before ‘maintenance’ might not be used), and therefore it’s more sensible to use semi-colons to make this clear (the Penguin Guide to Punctuation gives a good explanation of this).

    Ram, you’re correct, but it’s actually because the ‘and’ in the second example isn’t the conjunction belonging to the sentence – it’s only the conjunction between ‘bread’ and ‘butter’. It would be more accurate as ‘omelette, juice, and bread and butter’, which would be punctuated the same under either system, because of the presence of more than one ‘and’.

  • Kellyemac

    I’m a serial comma girl.

    In any technical writing most of the sentences are complex and therefore beg for the serial comma.

    Every several years at work a new employee, who is usually an English major, has to convince everyone on staff that the rule has changed and I’m old school. It becomes a me vs. them kind of thing. That employee leaves and I’m still the proofreader.

    Oddly, my mom never used it so maybe I’m new school?

    I stand by my commas!

  • Mark

    Interesting article!

    I was taught (in England) not to use the serial comma – unless it aids in comprehension.

    However, I think, these days, that consistency is probably a worthier goal, and although it will be hard to retrain myself, I shall probably start using the serial comma (especially as I’m now living in the US where the serial comma is prevalent).

  • Mark MacKay

    Fie on you, serial comma. I will not submit.

  • LInus

    No serial commas here. Just not the way I was taught the Queen’s English. I may bow to or accept American English spellings but I draw the line at that.
    IMO, American English is dynamic, ever changing, so why not drop the redundant comma?

  • Anto

    No I’ve never used it, must be what they taught in English at school. I also veer towards English spelling and away from American for the same reason probably. School for me was in Queensland during the 50’s and 60’s, which may help explain this habit.
    If I needed to justify not using the sc, the observation about commas actually standing in for conjunctions looks pretty sound to me.
    Also, the sc seems to my mind to introduce an element of plodding monotony to a sentence, but thats just me.

  • Bruce Kallick

    Dear Maeve — Having disparaged “The Little Book” (Taking Another Look at Strunk and White), you now complain that its advice on the use of serial commas (In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last) seems ambiguous to you. To me it seems admirably clear and concise. What ambiguity do you perceive, I wonder?

  • Maeve

    Bruce,

    Re: Strunk and White rule “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”

    Taken with the examples, the rule probably isn’t ambiguous for most readers, but I have had students who have asked me why the examples don’t match the rule. They thought that the words “each term except the last” meant the last term before the conjunction. Really.

  • Bruce Kallick

    To say that a certain statement is ambiguous to one person and not to another, or that it is ambiguous unless it is accompanied by examples, is a misuse of the word “ambiguous,” it seems to me.

  • Gina

    Well, you folks certainly have the right to be wrong. (Oxford has now dispensed with the “Oxford comma”. The dumbing down of America rages on…

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