Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Punctuation Point: The Serial Comma

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. Here Erin offers guidance on a stylistic point of contention, the serial comma.

Oxford comma.
Harvard comma.
Serial comma.

They all mean the same thing: the comma that comes right before the and in a series. As in: Sean ate eggs, pancakes, and bacon for breakfast. That second comma is the one we're talking about. For this post, I'll refer to it as the serial comma (maybe it's the connection to breakfast foods).

Many writers and editors feel strongly about whether the serial comma should be included. But here's the thing: it's not mandatory. The serial comma is a style issue. Chicago says to use it. AP says to nix it, except for a couple of situations. MLA uses it. So do APA and Gregg. Wired Style doesn't.

Even if your house style doesn't use the serial comma, it may make one or two exceptions, such as for clarity. Consider this sentence (frequently used to make this point):

I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and Jesus.

Is the speaker claiming an incredible heritage or thanking three groups? With a serial comma, we'd know for sure:

I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and Jesus.

You could argue that the reader could quickly understand what the writer meant. And you'd be right, though the reader might have tripped at first. And that trip is something you want to avoid. That small moment might be enough to distract your reader from your message and have her slip away. Not good. The humble serial comma can help prevent that. Of course, so could a rewrite, but that's not always ideal.

AP makes an exception for the serial comma when the final item in the series contains a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or):

Sean ate pancakes, juice, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

AP also makes an exception when the series is complex:

Sean considered whether to eat a large breakfast of eggs and pancakes, to have a light breakfast of hot oatmeal, or to skip breakfast completely.

Should you use the serial comma in your writing? I'm all for it. Consistently applying the serial comma is easier than not using it but watching for exceptions. And then asking the same of your editor. It's too easy to miss one case that really should have the comma and cause your readers to stumble over your meaning. If you use a specific style guide, follow that.

Again, there are exceptions. I recently edited a marketing book for an author who followed Chicago but who consistently didn't use the serial comma in his text. Clearly, his own rule was not to use the serial comma. Did it make sense for me to insert another comma in every series? Certainly not! I kept an eye out for any exceptions and let it go. It was the author's choice, not mine. If I had been working for a publisher instead of the writer, I would have followed what the publishing house dictated. Some will have a style ruling on the serial comma; others will have a rule that says the writer gets to choose.

In the end, the serial comma is a style rule. And in that case, he who pays the bills gets to make the rule.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 18th 2010, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Colin J. (Christchurch United Kingdom)
I always use the serial comma, and to avoid potential trippings up, review the text. If there should be a pause, then it is correct, if there should not be a pause, then I delete it. Thank you for your guidance

Thursday March 18th 2010, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Dan H. (New Richmond, WI)
Your parents must be very proud.
Thursday March 18th 2010, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)
We mandate the serial comma in my magazine. It just looks correct and, as you point out, it eliminates the extra editorial effort as described by Colin J above. (I'm sure Colin doesn't make the correct choice in ever case.)
Thursday March 18th 2010, 1:15 PM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
I always use the serial comma. Sentences just read better... old school.
Thursday March 18th 2010, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Robert R. (West Hartford, CT)
My English 1 master at school would be happy to see this article! Omit the comma - automatic 40!
Thursday March 18th 2010, 5:40 PM
Comment by: Anne G.
The serial comma is mandatory in technical writing, where in some cases a misunderstanding of the text could cause damage to equipment or harm to the user.
Friday March 19th 2010, 6:10 AM
Comment by: Redneckrenaissanceman
An interesting and informative article. I am curious, anxious to know, and plan to snoop into other stylistic points of contention.
Saturday March 20th 2010, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I love this,Erin. I have settled on the serial comma, after 25 years in the United States, but was taught not to use it in Australia.
Sunday March 21st 2010, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Jerry M.
In school years ago I was taught not to use the serial comma, but your example of Ayn Rand and Jesus being mistaken for one's parents dictates otherwise. I guess it should come down to which makes for the clearest, unmistakable communication.
Monday April 5th 2010, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
I'm sure Colin does make the correct choice in ever case.
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 5:22 PM
Comment by: Bruce S. (San Rafael, CA)
Thank you for the clarifications, especially for those "exceptions," which are wise to keep in mind. I like the freedom offered when you advised selecting one's own preference, and being consistent with it.
Monday April 26th 2010, 8:09 AM
Comment by: Fern R.
I advocate the serial comma and use it always! Thanks for this wonderful article! I have taught high school and college English for 42 years!
Tuesday April 27th 2010, 6:29 AM
Comment by: TANYA R.
Most informative about the serial comma. I will resume usage immediately!

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