Serial Commas: Your Side, My Side, and Their Side

In business writing courses, people always take sides on the use of commas with series. Known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma, this comma keeps us from running together items in a series.

Examples:

He leads the symphonic band, the jazz band, and the orchestra.

Daisies, black-eyed susans, and coneflowers are blooming in the flower box.

Would you like iced tea, coffee, or something else?

I am on the side of those who use the serial comma the way I did above, with a comma before the conjunction and or or. Some people leave out that final comma.

But whose side do writing style guides favor?

Surveying the 11 current, respected style manuals and dictionaries on my bookshelf, here is what I found:

  • 7 recommend including the comma before the conjunction.
  • 2 (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Canadian Oxford Dictionary) recommend the comma before the conjunction but acknowledge that some writers omit it.
  • 2 (The AP Stylebook and The Canadian Press Stylebook) leave out the comma before the conjunction unless doing so would cause confusion.

If you are wondering how leaving out a comma might cause confusion, consider this example, whose source I have forgotten:

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ingrid and God. (Without the comma, the sentence suggests the author's parents are Ingrid and God.) 

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ingrid, and God. (Here we know the parents are unnamed.)

 

People generally agree on these other comma rules for series:

1. Do not use a comma next to an ampersand.

Sign the card "With love from Anne, Jeffrey & Caroline."

2. Do not use a comma to separate items that are regarded as one unit, such as bacon and eggs.

The breakfast menu always includes cold cereal, oatmeal, bacon and eggs, and toast.

3. Do not use commas if all the items are separated by and or or.

She loves hip-hop and reggae and Latin jazz.

4. "As well as" is not the same as and structurally.

NOT THIS: We will visit New Orleans, Miami, as well as Dallas. 
BUT THIS: We will visit New Orleans, Miami, and Dallas.
OR THIS: We will visit New Orleans, Miami and Dallas. 

I like punctuation to be simple and straightforward. That's why I am on the side of always using the serial comma before the conjunction rather than using it only when the sentence might be confusing without it.

The editors of 9 of my 11 reference books agree with me. Do you? I welcome your comments, your suggestions, and your serial commas!

Test yourself on lots of punctuation and usage rules with my Error Quests booklet.

Lynn
Syntax Training

18 COMMENTS

  1. I use the same method you do, Lynn. I find it fascinating how energetic some people get in defense of certain grammar rules. A recent post of mine contained the same serial comma approach and that opened the door for a discussion of what is right or wrong (so to speak). 🙂

  2. Commas, the main reason why I have a fight with editors. 🙂 My thumb rule: if there is a pause, express it with something. Almost always, there is no right or wrong.

    Writers must control the experience of a reader. Whenever writers want their readers to stop/pause while reading their content, writers should make use of some marker. In general, a hard stop needs a full stop, and a catching-a-breath kinda pause needs a comma.

    What do u think?

    Girish
    http://www.gpod.in

  3. Serial commas. I’m not worried about ink costs or character count so I’ll take the clarity afforded by the extra comma.

  4. Hi, Cathy. Like you, I have experienced those colorful discussions of right and wrong in the rules of writing. Last week I had to delete a comment containing expletives about, of all things, “Please advise.”

    As always, thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  5. Hi, Girish. Thanks for commenting. I am not as liberal as you in thinking “Almost always, there is no right or wrong.” I am a rule follower. I break a rule only when it does not seem to serve the reader’s needs.

    I believe we have a problem when we each decide about appropriate punctuation. That’s why I have a good collection of style guides to consult.

    Best wishes,

    Lynn

  6. Hi, Jennifer. I am with you.

    As you know, it’s the print-media publishers who worry about ink and space. Thus “The AP Stylebook” preference for leaving out the final comma.

    Thanks for stoppping by.

    Lynn

  7. We use the serial comma at work, so it’s become a personal habit for me. I know many of us were taught (in elementary school!) that it wasn’t necessary, so old habits die hard.

    In your example for using “as well as” – We will visit New Orleans, Miami, as well as Dallas – how would you write it correctly? I would write “We will visit New Orleans and Miami, as well as Dallas.” It sounds better to me, but I have no idea if I’m right.

  8. Hi, Val. Thanks for your comment and question.

    If we wanted to use “as well as,” this is the correct rendering, just as you had it:

    “We will visit New Orleans and Miami, as well as Dallas.”

    Think of it as you would “in addition to”:

    “We will visit New Orleans and Miami, in addition to Dallas.”

    I can’t give you the why, only the what. THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE shares similar examples.

    I am glad you asked. I intended to put that solution in the original post, but it slipped my mind.

    Lynn

  9. With my roots in journalism, I tend toward AP Style. The extra comma (see, I even call it “extra”) distracts me when I’m reading. However, now that I think about it, years ago I used the serial comma before the conjunction and had to unlearn that style when I began newspaper writing.

    So, if a client insists on that extra comma, I will put it in, but reluctantly.

  10. Newspapers only survive if they’re easy to read, so long ago I decided to follow their lead and drop the serial comma. By the way, it’s also missing in British English, French and German. But I do use it when clarity requires it.

  11. Hello, George. Thank you for bringing in British English, French, and German. (Sorry about the comma there.) I searched several online resources to get validation of your statement, and they agreed with you.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  12. It is my understanding that most legal writing uses the serial comma. I will share an example that I have seen used in two writing classes:

    A will was written stating, “I leave my estate to Joe, Allan and Ella.” The story says that Joe (or more likely his attorney) argued that the will left half of the estate to him and the other half to be split between Allan and Ella. The argument was that if the estate was to be split three ways, the deceased would have used a serial comma to show that three way division. According to the story, Joe won.

    I don’t know if this is a true story or not, but I think it is a fun story that illustrates my point of view well.

  13. Jennifer, I have always hated the serial comma and have removed it when possible…less is better has been my motto. But I now run across a situation where I really do not know where or if I even need to put any commas.
    How would you punctuate this sentence: Roads must continually be maintained free from debris, snow and ice and often need repaired.? Should there be a comma before “and ice” and/or should there be a comma before “and often need repaired”? Grammer has never been a strong point and these days I need all the help I can get.

  14. Hi, Bobby. Here is how I would punctuate the sentence:

    Roads must continually be maintained free from debris, snow, and ice and often need repairs. (“Often need repaired” does not make sense.)

    If I could revise the sentence, I would change it this way:

    Roads must continually be maintained free from debris, snow, and ice, and they often need repairs.

    Lynn

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