Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma
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?
I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does not use a serial comma.)
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.
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).
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.
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.