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”

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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

    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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Mark MacKay

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

  • 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).

  • 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!

  • 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’.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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!

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