Skip to content

RESTORING THE SERIAL COMMA

by Paula LaRocque on October 30th, 2012

 A common myth is that there’s something wrong with the serial or “Oxford” comma – that is, the comma before and or or in a list. That myth is especially prevalent among media writers, most of whom use the Associated Press Stylebook. That stylebook may have unwittingly contributed to the confusion by saying it’s OK to omit the serial comma in a simple list: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. But AP style also demands the serial comma when the series is complex, or when the last two items run together ambiguously, or when an item in the list contains a comma. Examples:

The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper attitude.

I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The gist of the AP guideline is that we should retain the serial comma in all but the simplest and shortest list, and it does not say that the serial comma is wrong in any case. But that’s not the way the guideline has been assimilated. Instead, some writers have concluded—entirely without support—that the serial comma is wrong and should be deleted. But it’s not wrong, and no accepted authority would say that it is.

Interestingly, even those who would in some cases delete the serial comma require in all cases the serial semi-colon—an even heavier separator than the comma. That doesn’t make sense, and such inconsistencies point to a style practice that causes more trouble than it’s worth. And it isn’t worth anything. Omitting the serial comma destroys parallel balance, forces writers to decide whether this is one of those times when the serial comma is optional, and often muddies meaning.

Writing authorities agree that the serial comma should be retained in all cases. Here are excerpts from experts:

In their revered Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White write that in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, commas should separate the terms, including before the conjunction. Examples:

Red, white, and blue.

Gold, silver, or copper.

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

From the equally revered Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler: “Where more than two words or phrases or groupings occur together in a sequence, a comma should precede the and . . . . The ‘Oxford’ comma is frequently, but in my view, unwisely, omitted by many.”

From the bible of the contemporary literary and publishing world, The Chicago Manual of Style: “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction. Examples:

Attending the conference were Farmer, Johnson, and Kendrick.

We have a choice of copper, silver, or gold.

The owner, the agent, and the tenant were having an acrimonious discussion.

The Chicago Manual adds that in a “series of short independent clauses, the last two of which are joined by a conjunction, a comma should be placed between the clauses and before the conjunction. Example: Harris presented the proposal to the governor, the governor discussed it with the senator, and the senator made an appointment with the president.”

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English: “Commas separate words in a series (a horse, a dog, and a cow); note that American English prefers and many editors require the comma after dog.”

Modern American Usage, Wilson Follet, et. al.: This entry is five pages long, with many examples showing the resulting confusion of omitting serial commas. An excerpt:

“A widely parroted dictum is supposed to settle the issue: If you have the conjunction, you don’t need the comma. That is bad reasoning or no reasoning at all. A conjunction is a connective device, as its name announces; whereas a mark of punctuation is nothing if not separative. To insist that the first perform the duty of the second is like prescribing sand in the bearings . . . . It is implicit in the standard form of a series that when you write red, white, and blue, you mean red and white and blue — three equal terms. . . . The recommendation here is to use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances.”

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate dictionary:  A comma “separates words, phrases, or clauses in series:

He was young, eager, and restless.

It requires one to travel constantly, to have no private life, and to need no income other than living expenses.”

Webster’s New World (The Associated Press’ dictionary of choice): A comma is used to “separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series:

The menu offered the usual choices of steak, chops, and chicken.

Expect it tomorrow, next Monday, or a week from today.

If you study hard, concentrate, and take your time, you are sure to pass.”

The New World notes that some writers omit this series comma, but that it is useful in preventing ambiguities.

The U.S. Government Printing Office’s Manual of Style insists on commas in series before and, or, or nor—no exceptions.

The Modern Language Association’s Line by Line, by Claire Cook: “In a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses in which a conjunction precedes only the final item, a comma should follow every item . . . . For example:

On the New York Stock Exchange yesterday the industrials were up 9.5, the transports were down 4.35, and the utilities were unchanged.

The agency lists openings in publishing, broadcasting, advertising, and public relations.

The McGraw-Hill Style Manual: “A comma is needed for clarity before and or or in a series of three or more items.”

The Dictionary of Modern America Usage, Bryan Garner: A comma “separates items (including the last from the next-to-last) in a list of more than two—e.g.: ‘The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons.’ Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”

The Copy Editor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn: “Use commas to separate the items in a list or series:

Bring your books, pens, and pencils.

A driver’s license, passport, or other official photo ID must be shown to the clerk.”

Shipley’s Style Guide for the Workplace: “A comma separates the last two items in a series although these items are linked by a conjunction. . . . This comma was once considered optional, but the trend is to make it mandatory, especially in technical and business English. Leaving it out can cause confusion and misinterpretation.”

 #

And there’s more.  All of that may seem overkill.  But it substantiates my claim that experts unanimously recommend the use of the serial comma.

Why do some writers hang onto a practice that the rest of the literate world either never heard of or rejects? Habit and tradition. Nothing else, and nothing better. (A newsroom copy editor actually told me it was to save space. Please. Prune one redundancy, delete one unnecessary word—we’d make enough room for a handful of serial commas.)

For decades, much of my writing has gone through the hands of media copy editors.  In all that time, I’ve diligently included serial commas in my work, and some copy editor or other has just as diligently deleted them.  I live for the day that copy editors either wake up or give up!

So my best counsel regarding the serial comma?  For clarity, balance, and beauty, restore that elegant little squiggle to your work. There was never good reason to omit it.

# # #

(This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, by Paula LaRocque [Marion Street Press, Inc., 2003].)

From → PUNCTUATION

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

HTML tags are not allowed.