Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma

punctuation marksToday’s post is from the archives of 2009. It’s an oldie but a goodie.

When you use commas to separate items in a list or series, do you include a comma before the conjunction near the end of the list?

For example:

I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does not use a serial comma.)

or

I write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does use a serial comma.)

The Serial Comma

The comma used before the conjunction in a list of three or more items is called a serial comma. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma.

If you pay attention to little things like punctuation marks, you’ll notice that writers are split on this one. Some people use the serial comma diligently. Some use it on occasion. Others don’t use it at all.


So, which way is correct?

Style, Grammar, and Punctuation

The question of whether or not to use a serial comma is not a grammatical matter. Technically, there is no right or wrong answer because grammarians haven’t set forth an absolute rule for serial comma usage.

So, it’s left up to the writers, which means that usage of a serial comma is a style issue.

If you’re not sure whether you should use a serial comma, particularly for a professional piece of writing, you should consult the appropriate style guide. Most publications adhere to a style guide, as do academic institutions and many businesses.

Arguments Against the Serial Comma

Traditionally, the serial comma was standard fare in written English. However, once the printing press entered the equation, newspapers decided to forgo the serial comma to save space. That’s why journalism style guides such as The New York Times Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook do not include serial commas in their guidelines.

There are several arguments against use of the serial comma. These include:

  • Using the serial comma is not conventional.
  • Including the serial comma may cause ambiguity.
  • It’s redundant, since the conjunction in such a sentence marks the same pause or separation that the serial comma would mark.

Example:

This table is reserved for the writer, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

In the sentence above, it’s unclear whether the table is reserved for two or three people. “The writer” could be referring to Jane Doe, or the writer and Jane Doe could be two separate individuals.

As for convention, the absence of the serial comma is only conventional in journalism. In almost all other forms of writing, it is more conventional to use it.

Arguments for the Serial Comma

Most authorities outside of journalism recommend using the serial comma consistently. For example, both The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style recommend using a serial comma. The MLA Style Manual, which is the primary style resource in academics, also supports use of the serial comma.

Arguments for the use of the serial comma include:

  • Serial commas reduce ambiguity.
  • It promotes consistency, since sometimes a serial comma will be required for clarity.
  • Usage is in line with other practices for separating list items (i.e. semicolons).

Examples:

I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell.

The sentence above is unclear. Does the narrator speak to three entities (best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell) or are Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell the narrator’s best friends? Adding the serial comma clarifies:

I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

Choose Your Commas Wisely

Unless you’re mandated by a style guide, you’ll have to decide whether to use a serial comma or not. This is a decision you may make only once for all time, or it could be a decision you make based on the syntax of individual sentences.

As a freelance writer, I decided a couple of years ago that it would be most professional to use the serial comma consistently in all my writing. That decision came about when I decided to choose a style guide so that all my work would be consistent, all the time. I went with The Chicago Manual of Style since it is the most widely used and most flexible style guide.

However, I was also in agreement with the folks who argue in favor of the serial comma. I think that the serial comma usually adds clarification and I also think that since one of the functions of a comma is to mark a pause, it sounds better (and provides readers with a guideline) when read aloud.

Get in on the Discussion

Do you use a serial comma? Sometimes? Never? Always? Do you even think about it? Have you ever been reading and stumbled across a sentence that was confusing because of the serial comma (or lack thereof)?

It’s unlikely that your choices regarding serial commas will make or break your writing career, especially if you are focused on creative writing. However, mastering punctuation marks is one of the essential steps on the ladder to becoming a professional writer, so you might as well get this one out of the way and take a stand.

So, whether or not you use a serial comma, just be sure to keep on writing.

Are you a fan of the serial comma or do you avoid using it whenever possible? Share your thoughts about this and other punctuation marks in the comments.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

50 Responses to “Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma”

  1. Bill Womack says:

    Hi, I’m Bill, and I use the serial comma. I got hooked several years ago, on the advice of the Chicago Manual of Style. Well, that’s not exactly right. Actually, it was a friend in my writers group who insisted that it was more correct. Now that I’ve started using, I find that just looking at a list that’s missing its ultimate comma gives me a facial tick. In a world gone mad, adding that last comma offers the sense of consistency and order that I crave. It just makes sense!

    Lately, I’ve started experimenting with semicolons.

  2. Martin - Writing Prompts says:

    I use the serial comma as well though my rational is slightly different from your example. I agree that it reduces ambiguity, mostly in the cases where your list includes an item that has a conjunction already in it.

    For example:

    I love the albums Exist, Black and Blue and The White Album.

    Now we’ve got two ands just kind of hanging out there since “Black and Blue” is an album.

    It’s a lot better as:

    I love the albums Exist, Black and Blue, and the White Album.

    • Martin, your example is perfect. How would anyone (other than a music connoisseur) know how to read that sentence without the serial comma? I don’t know Exist, but I’m guessing Black and Blue is the Stones and The White Album is the Beatles. Right?

      Ah, I just realized that if you set off the album titles in italics, and keep the conjunction as is, the serial comma may not be necessary. Still, I’m all for it. Can’t always count on formatting!

      • Martin - Writing Prompts says:

        Haha I actually threw a random hodge podge of albums together there. One’s by an artist Tony Rich, another is the Backstreet Boys and the last as you said, is the Beatles. Lol, a very eclectic mix but it was the first that came to mind :).

        You bring up an interesting point though. Styling can be done in some cases to differentiate the names, which could take the place of the serial comma. However, unless the data happens to lend itself well to that sort of formatting, it’s SOL. For instance, if we referred to ice cream places and I said Ben and Jerry’s. That frustrating and is back again in the middle of our list!

        • Interesting. The Rolling Stones have an album titled Black and Blue also. I love all the reasons in favor of serial commas that you guys are bringing to the table. By now, you may have realized that my secret mission is to propagate serial comma usage across the Internet. Muhahah.

  3. John Roach says:

    Martin, in that case, you would use a comma anyway, which is the core of my decision: even if you disavow the serial comma, you’re going to use it sometimes anyway, so you may as well adopt it.

    To add to what Melissa said, people who don’t use the serial comma believe that the comma means “and.” It is my opinion that the comma hasn’t meant “and” for quite some time.

    You’ll see this belief reflected in headlines. For example, “John, Melissa talk about commas” — most normal people would say that the mark that means “and” is the ampersand, but you’ll never see a “&” in a headline.

    Long live the serial comma!

    • John, thanks for singing the praises of the serial comma. You’re an astute writer, so I’m glad you chimed in on this one. Actually, I think the reason I’m so adamantly in favor of the serial comma has more to do with pronunciation. I think it lends to the cadence of how a sentence should be read aloud.

  4. Melissa,
    I really enjoy your grammar stories you share here.
    You have live language – very easy read that helps me learn better writing.
    I am using serial comma. I adopted this from reading English books. Funny, but in languages I speak, they do not use serial comma so it’s not very natural for me to use it. But I do.

    Alik Levin | PracticeThis.coms last blog post..First Leadership Lesson For Your Kid – Compromise

    • Yes, when researching this post, I read that most languages do not use the serial comma. Since I only speak English fluently (plus a little French and Spanish), I cannot make conjectures on why the serial comma would be absent in other tongues, but it’s important to note that some languages have vastly different constructions. For example, in English we say “the red rose.” In French, it would be “the rose red.” Because words are arranged differently in different languages, maybe the serial comma doesn’t add anything to some of those languages.

      I’d love to learn more about this issue, and find out if the absence of the serial comma in some languages makes certain sentences unclear or ambiguous.

  5. --Deb says:

    I almost always use serial commas. There are rare occasions when, as you say, it can make things confusing, but I think it more often does the opposite. So, yes, I’m a fan!

    –Debs last blog post..Spinning Words 2–The Fiber

  6. Evelyn says:

    You know, Melissa, I started to get a little hissy as I was reading this post. You know how everyone knows someone who knows it all (or thinks they do) and you’re inclined to just go with their advice. Well, not this time!

    The rule of thumb that I was given years ago was that it was a wasted punctuation and not needed. More recently, I had one of those literary geniuses say that it should be there and that people who leave it out are incorrect. Thank you, my dear, for correcting both of those view points.

    Being that it’s neither one, really, I know feel happy using it unless it makes the sentence confusing, i.e. “This table is reserved for the writer, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.” Oh dear Lord! That answers that! Can we say, proof read and then decide? Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m gonna go read about that semi guy too — just to be sure I’ve got a handle on that one! :)

    • I hear that a lot – “the rule of thumb that I was given” or “the way I was taught…” Sometimes, people are taught incorrect grammar usage at a young age, and it becomes a habit. In this case, it’s a style rather than a grammar issue, so it’s not a big deal. I think some folks tend to use style guides and fail to realize that they address style rather than grammar. So a person reading the AP style guide (which advises against serial commas), would then teach that serial commas are incorrect, which isn’t actually the case.

      Since I like to stick to the facts, I don’t post or practice anything without first looking it up (and I usually check several different sources). One good way to verify information like this is to look for a source, and then check to see if it’s a valid source (or if it’s style vs. grammar).

      Glad I could be of help Evelyn ;) Now you are free to use the serial comma (or not) as you choose.

      • Bill Womack says:

        As a fiction writer, I put my faith in the Chicago Style Guide over AP. In section 6.19, it says “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma–knkown as the serial or seires comma or the Oxford comma–should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage.”

        Thus spake Chicago.

        • Bill Womack says:

          Clearly I need some sort of pill for my typing. You get the point, anyway. Editable comments, anyone?

        • I tried to install editable comments but alas, it did not work. Some kind of conflict with the latest version of WordPress… I will try again at some point in the future – and I’ll wager a guess that eventually technology will be all caught up and all things WordPress will work seamlessly together.

        • Yes, thus spake Chicago ;) It’s a big, burly style guide, but don’t you just love it?

  7. Lori says:

    Until a few years ago, I was a non-serial kind of gal. Now I have a rule about when I use them – if it’s a book or some sort of research project, serial commas all the way. If not, it’s up to my mood at the time. :)) Seriously. I tend to use the serial comma a lot lately, but I used to follow AP style religiously, which meant leaving out that last comma. But I’ve converted. :))

    Loris last blog post..Creating Value and Loyalty in a Sucky Market

    • Years ago, I didn’t use the serial comma either. I also always used to put two spaces after any punctuation that marked the end of a sentence. Oh yes, and I indented all my paragraphs five spaces (or one tab). Boy, things sure have changed. When I started writing freelance, I became a lot more aware of the mechanics and consistency of my writing and I had to develop a bunch of new habits. I have to say, using the serial comma came easily. It was the single space after the end of a sentence that took a while to get used to.

  8. Michele says:

    Melissa, I have a question. Here’s one of your examples: I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe and God.

    Would it be wrong to write that sentence with a colon before Jane Doe and God? Like this:

    I speak regularly to my best friends: Jane Doe and God. Isn’t it more clear that way that you’re showing the best friends are indeed Jane Doe and God? Or, for some grammatical reason, is that wrong?

    Just curious. :-)

    *smiles*
    Michele

    P.S. This is an awesome post, by the way! I love it. ;-)

    • Oh yes, you could use a colon instead. That works nicely. I think it makes the sentence a lot sharper, so if you were going for a warm tone or flowing language, the commas might be more effective. As much as I like using the less common punctuation marks (colons, semicolons, etc.), I try to stick with commas whenever possible, because they read more naturally. Then again, sometimes I get on a kick with some punctuation mark or other. Like right now, I love the em dash. Heheh.

  9. Bobby Revell says:

    Great article Melissa. I have learned something new!

    I’m really funny with my punctuation and get in strange moods. Sometimes I have this thing where I overuse different punctuation marks like the dash, semicolon or parentheses (I know I overuse the dash but I’m addicted). Sometimes I use none of the above and strive to only use commas.

    I think of punctuation like the rests in music; where silence, pauses and rhythm are created. I’m really into creating unusually chopped sentences and fragmented phrases. How about an article of using punctuation creatively? Creativity can be applied in so many places in writing can’t they? Punctuation is a creative way of getting from one word–or phrase–to another :wink:

    Bobby Revells last blog post..Ejakula: Black Mamba Hallucinogen

    • Yes! I too think of punctuation like the rests in music, especially when I’m working with poetry or any type of writing that is creative in nature. With articles, blog posts, and website copy, I like to keep it straight (for the most part) but I also enjoy ripping off the chains of conformity and having a little fun with language and punctuation. I’m overusing the em dash myself these days – it’s a handy little mark, isn’t it? I like your idea about an article on creative punctuation. That’s something to think about!

  10. Bobby Revell says:

    Oh yeah . . . I had to stumble & review this one. I hope you get a nice traffic blast:-)

    Bobby Revells last blog post..Ejakula: Black Mamba Hallucinogen

  11. t.sterling says:

    Whenever I get stuck whether to use a serial comma or not, I read it out loud to hear if it might sound confusing or misleading. Besides, my style of writing is pretty close to how I actually speak. I do change things a bit to make it sound semi-grammatically correct, but for the most part I’m writing out loud.

    But I’m agreeing with Bobby Revell with rolling out with other punctuations to say what I need to say, throwing in dashes and parentheses here and there to clarify my meaning. It is a lot like music, I like that analogy. But back to commas… I’m a fan of the ampersand. In a case like the album Black and Blue, I’d opt for Black & Blue just to show that is one item. I thought of that when I was listening to Earth, Wind & Fire… which doesn’t use a serial comma even without the ampersand. Just a thought. Overall, I think I just go with what looks best at the time or I rewrite it so there isn’t confusion. Thanks for the intriguing thought on the subject.

    And what’s this business about a single space after the end of a sentence? I do double all the time and might hurt myself if I stopped. Except for text messages and Twitter.

    t.sterlings last blog post..bring on the bitter romance, baby!

    • I read aloud to check my punctuation too, but for anything professional, like website copy, I’ll look it up.

      You haven’t heard about the single space? Double spaces at the end of a sentence went out years ago. Get on board!

  12. Michele says:

    Thanks for clarifying about the colon, Melissa. I think I probably I use too many commas a lot of the time. I’m trying to really tighten up my writing and be careful with proofreading and all the stuff us writerly types are supposed to be perfect at. ;-)

    Hey, I ordered Grammar Girl’s book–it’s awesome! I love it!

    *smiles*
    Michele

    • Oh yes, that’s another book on my wish list. I really need to find more reading time. However, I did read a wonderful book last weekend (fiction) and you’ll see the review for it on Monday, plus a guest post by the book’s author on Tuesday. Exciting stuff. But still, I need to get Grammar Girls’ book. I want it.

  13. Michele says:

    Yeah, I treated myself to it. There’s a TON of other books I’d love to have but they’re sitting patiently on my wish list. ;-) I know you’ll love Grammar Girl’s book–it’ll be worth the wait!

    *smiles*
    Michele

    • Yep, I love Grammar Girl’s podcast, so I’m sure the book will be awesome. I remember reading an article about how popular her podcast was, and how they were truly surprised that so many people actually cared about grammar. That makes me feel hopeful!

  14. Michele says:

    I read that, too. You know, I had to pretty much learn this stuff all over again so it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in grammar–it was due health issues and memory problems that stemmed from domestic violence. I always made either an A or A+ on English, Spelling, and those subjects in school, so I knew I could tap into that part of my brain and dig it out again. I’m still not perfect but it’s so much easier than it was! :-)

    *smiles*
    Michele

  15. Michele says:

    Aw, thanks so much for your kind words, Melissa! I appreciate it. :-)

    *smiles*
    Michele

  16. Felicia Fredlund says:

    Personally I haven’t been sure why the serial comma has been used in English, and that of course comes from my Swedish background.

    In Swedish we do not have the serial comma. It just isn’t necessary (I loath trying to spell that word (necessary); where does that strange spelling come from? Probably from French).

    Reading this blog post have changed my mind though. I can see the point in using a serial comma, although I haven’t decided if I will use it or not yet.

    I have a question:
    Why have a comma before “and” in normal sentences? E.g. I went to my friend’s house, and there I played video games with her.
    Is that correct or not? I seem to see it sometimes, and sometimes not.
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Felicia, Me too! For many years I did not use the serial comma (and that’s perfectly acceptable) but once I ran across a couple of sentences that gained clarity by using it, I switched over.

      In your example, I’m not really sure why you put a comma before “and,” but my understanding is that you use a comma before conjunctions that fall between clauses that could stand as independent sentences. if you had said “I went to my friend’s house and played video games,” then there is no comma because “played video games” could not stand alone as a sentence. Whew.

      I tend to err on the side of caution and use a comma whenever I’m in doubt.

      • Felicia Fredlund says:

        Thank you for your answer.

        That sentence was just one I made up of the top of my head, but I sometimes see commas before “and”s and it have always confused me.

    • Joshua Randall says:

      Felicia,

      In your example, the comma you are using is not a serial comma.

      The serial comma only comes into play when there is a list of more than two things. It is not a serial comma if you only have a list of two things, and in that case there is never a comma.

      But, in your example, there is not even a list of two things. There are two clauses that you are joining with a conjunction. Whether or not you should use a comma does not depend on your choice of serial comma style, but on other grammar and style rules.

      Josh.

  17. Kathy Cobb says:

    I have four up-to-date college level text-books. Every book says to use the serial comma. Sorry, but there IS a right way to do things.

    If someone does not want to follow the rules, that is fine. However, they should be honest enough to admit that they simply do not agree with the rules. They should not say that the rules do not exist.

    Too many people cling to misconceptions because they never learned the correct way of doing things. Some people sift through various internet articles until they find someone who agrees with them. However, the internet can be as much a source of misinformation as information. Anyone can post that they are an expert on something. This does not mean that they are.

    I will acknowledge that there are certain stylistic choices made for journalistic writing. For example, newspapers do not use the serial comma to save space. This is a choice based on a specific need. Newspaper columnists are not necessarily saying that it is the correct way to write. In addition, creative writing is a different animal altogether. However, for most all-purpose writing, the serial comma is the correct choice.

    The best thing to do (for the confused) is to buy an up-to-date college text-book.

    This is far better than calling people know-it-alls for caring about the mechanics of writing.

    • Hi Kathy, Every resource that I’ve encountered states that the serial comma is a style issue, not a grammar issue. In other words, both ways are correct. Having said that, there are arguments among grammarians and linguists about what is correct usage and what is left to style. I’m a huge advocate for the serial comma. I don’t think saving space is a very good excuse for not using the serial comma, especially in the digital age (where we still see online newspapers and magazines ignoring the serial comma). My hope is that your textbooks are recent publications and the powers that be are shifting toward making the serial comma a rule rather than a choice. That would be a good thing!

    • Joshua Randall says:

      Kathy,

      Could you cite your textbook references? I am thinking of updating the wikipedia page on serial comma use, and I’m looking for some additional references for it.

      Thanks!

      Josh.

  18. Rose Mattax says:

    I appreciate the blog on this topic. It’s amazing how much there is to say about a little thing like serial commas. I’m mostly mood-driven in my use of them. When I edit, I pay more attention.

    • You’re right. It is amazing how much there is to say about serial commas. Writers, grammarians, and linguists are passionate about their punctuation marks!

  19. David Bowman says:

    Here’s one of my basic principles for punctuation: “What we do sometimes for clarity, we do all the time for consistency.” This is why I use the serial comma. Sometimes that comma is necessary.

    My favorite example to demonstrate this: “I love my parents, Michelle Obama and the Pope.”

    The APA style guide, Library of Congress style guide, the AMA style guide, Zen Comma, Elements of Style (etc. etc. etc.) all promote the serial comma, and for good reason. It improves clarity. As you noted, the primary reason journalistic writing removes the comma is to save space, not to improve clarity. I prefer clarity.

  20. scienex says:

    this serial comma must be one of very few punctiuation marks (or functions) that may both cause and reduce ambiguity, right? :o)

    fun fact: i use the serial comma when writing in english, but in dutch – which is my native language – i do not, even though the same arguments apply there. it seems to me that it occurs in english more than it does in dutch.

    • True, but I personally think it lends clarity more often than it causes ambiguity. I haven’t thought much about whether serial commas are used in other languages, but now I’m quite curious. Mostly, I’m wondering whether it’s a style or grammar issue in other written languages.

Trackbacks

Check out what others are saying about this post...

  1. [...] Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma [...]