Grammar Blip: The Serial Comma

commaIn my last grammar blog post, I promised controversy. I promised intrigue. I promised grammar topics that would get you hot under the collar and searching for your staple gun. Well, here you go.


First of all, to clarify, I’m referring to the Oxford comma, a.k.a. The Harvard comma, a.k.a. The Why-Yes-I-Am-A-Rocket-Scientist comma. It appears in a list of three or more words or phrases between the penultimate word/phrase and the word “and.”

So for example:

“Can you please pass the fish, chips, and Guiness?” (This is about as Oxford as I get, ladies and gents.)

See that comma budging in between the “chips” and the “and”? That’s the serial comma. It shows up in a series of things, hence the “serial.”

Now let’s look at it without the serial comma:

“Can you please pass the fish, chips and Guiness?”

Doesn’t look that bad you say. And you’d be right. It’s not technically incorrect to leave out the serial comma. But here’s where it gets a bit hairy.

Example the second:

“The Queen mum likes to get up early every morning and have toast with tea, write formal invitations and responses to invitations, and play croquet with her grandson.”

Now let’s look at this sentence WITHOUT a serial comma (*shudder*).

“The Queen mum likes to get up early every morning and have toast with tea, write formal invitations and responses to invitations and play croquet with her grandson.”

I dare anyone to look me in the eye and swear on Prince Charles’s comb-over that those two “ands” don’t confuse the heck out of a person without a comma to indicate their proper uses in the sentence.

I know there are plenty of people emphatically opposed to the serial comma. I can hear their voices now… “The comma means ‘and’! It’s like saying ‘and and’!” And they’d be right. But in my line of work, it has never made the meaning of a sentence less clear to add the comma, though it has often made meaning unclear when the comma is excluded. And to me, meaning carries the most weight.

Some very prestigious grammar people (who are much much more expert on the subject of grammar than I, lowly proofreader that I am) have suggested using the serial comma when it’s necessary and dropping it when it isn’t. This idea itches at my brain. My Virgo OCD kicks in and woe betide anyone who puts such a manuscript near my bright, shiny red pen. Consistency people! How’s a reader supposed to know what to expect when you throw around punctuation willy nilly? Much better, IMO, to be consistent throughout one way or the other.

So take from this post what you will. It is certainly not grammatically incorrect to write: “Prince William is young, dreamy and already taken, more’s the pity.” But keep consistency in mind when you’re considering your comma options. And I, for one, will be happily sipping tea and having scones, marmalade, and clotted cream with my dear friend the serial comma.

For our next grammarian gab session, we’ll be covering the hype behind hyphens. Stay tuned.

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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21 Responses to Grammar Blip: The Serial Comma

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