Home : Commatose: the Oxford Comma, or Serial Comma

cereal-commasThe Oxford comma, or serial comma is a subject of constant debate among writers. Do we need that comma before the last item on a list? Even without a list, the comma is an important determiner of meaning.

Time to eat children.

A comma after “eat” will better support your petition for unsupervised visitation.

Proponents of the Oxford comma (which include MLA, CMOS, and Strunk & White) regard the comma as a logical grouping device.

The teams wore jerseys colored red, blue, green, black and orange.

Four color schemes or five?

The teams wore jerseys colored red, blue, green, black, and orange.


I ordered steak, wine and cake.

A comma after “wine” will keep the frosting out of your champagne.

When hiring an editor, choose the very best:

I’d like to thank my editors, Mark Twain and Herman Melville.

This next example not only mischaracterizes Kim, it overestimates her age and makes inappropriate assumptions about her hobbies. A comma after “mummy” will eliminate confusion and probably a libel suit.

Highlights of his journey include a visit with Kim Kardashian, a 4000-year-old mummy and a collector of sex toys.

Opponents of the serial comma suggest less ambiguous wording and common sense as alternatives. The absurdity of the inference that Twain and Melville are your editors, or that your cake and wine are combined should be enough to alert even the most blockheaded reader of the writer’s intentions. If the highlights of the journey included visitS (plural), the meaning would be clear. If a comma indicates a pause—even a subtle one—an added comma is like an unnecessary speedbump in a sentence. With a bit of reworking, meanings can be made clear without requiring a serial comma:

I’d like to thank Mark Twain, Herman Melville and my editors.

The serial comma is accepted practice, and it offers an easy way to keep listed items in their appropriate buckets. Many typographers like the “balanced distribution” of commas throughout a list.

Whatever your preference, do what the style guide dictates. When on your own, consistency is more important than choosing a particular grammar camp. Whether you use the Oxford comma or not, avoid ambiguity. The serial comma is one solution—but not the only solution—to the problems of creating logical groupings and ensuring that what is spoken about is safely separated from who is spoken to.


Commatose: the Oxford Comma, or Serial Comma — 16 Comments

  1. I prefer the serial comma; I will not spend my time rewriting a sentence to make it clear. (Oh, oh. Better try again.) And don’t forget to use semi-colons in a series using commas to set off a description.

  2. Those are great examples for advocating the serial comma. I figure those who are opposed will learn the hard way. It seems kinder.

    I was taught to use it. Others who weren’t or were told it was optional are hard to convince. If a teacher says something is so, what student will refute it? Therein lies the root of the problem–it is taught.

    • Ah, but many writers who don’t like the serial comma have found other ways to write without ambiguity. Or, they reserve serial commas for special instances like the list of solid and mixed colors. Though it’s true we all tend to gravitate toward what we were taught (I was taught not to use the Oxford comma; I’m a convert), much great prose has been rendered without it. Language is an evolving medium. See my article on how many spaces to type after a period—almost 60,000 page views at the time of this writing and all this contention over a matter that has zero effect on the meaning of the text!

  3. thatstorygirl: When several prominent style guides prescribe its use, I’m afraid that makes the serial comma accepted practice. You may not subscribe to its use, but I believe your first colored-jersey solution is now more likely to confuse a reader. By setting off two colors linked by “and” with commas, it is now clear that a jersey in this list may now have two colors or only one. How then to interpret “green and purple” at the end of the sentence without making an unwarranted assumption on behalf of every reader?

    The second solution introduces a new issue because now shades of meaning come into play. Is “black with orange” the same as “black and orange”? For me the answer is no. While “black and orange” is a parallel construction, “black with orange” seems to emphasize black, and in the end, there is still the possibility of confusion for some readers at the end of the sentence.

    Your third suggestion is more of the same: …red, blue, green, purple and black with orange.

    Why risk confusion for any reader, even if you deem them obtuse.

    • Perhaps I’m reacting emotionally to the many times I was rapped over the knuckles (literally) with a ruler by teachers for putting a comma next to an and – Pavlovian response. To me personally it just looks…. ugly. It’s simply not needed. I’ve never been confused by a sentence that has not used it.

      As for potentially getting over the simple ugliness of it staring at me (rather like how ugly colour looks without the ‘U’ or how much prettier Authorise is than Authorize) that would take a great deal of familiarising with the kind of writing that includes it.

      And isn’t it just familiarity – perhaps it’s because the material I read (whether it be novels, position papers, blogs or lots and lots of government (UK) blurb) all operate on the “no serial comma” rule that when I do see it, it is jarring, obvious and out of place.

      I’m under no illusion that my thoughts or arguments will sway any who support the superfluous comma any more than your arguments will sway me. What I do find interesting is the discussion itself and the fact that people love language enough to still argue for schools of thought around its use. Long may it continue! On the day that no-one cares how we build sense in language – that will be its death.

  4. “The ser­ial comma is accepted prac­tice” Really? It it was, then we wouldn’t be having this debate. It is certainly not accepted practice in an UK based Classroom (primary or Secondary) that I’ve been in, neither at A-Level or Degree Level. Don’t put a comma and an and next to each other is the “accepted practice” here. Only the most obtuse person would read the confused meanings into the sentences that proponents of the extra comma site as examples of it being needed. we must truly understand the purpose of the comma in this context. Yes, it’s commonly used as a connector and as a “pause” mechanism. In lists eg “The teams wore jerseys coloured red, blue, green, black and orange” it is serving as a replacement for the word “and”. Imagine how ugly and unwieldy sentences that consisted of a list if you had to actually use the word “and”. *shudders*. Taking this into consideration placing a comma and an and next to each other is like having two “ands” –
    The teams wore jerseys colored red and blue and green and black and and orange. See how ludicrous that would be? Hence why we don’t need the Comma.

      • Well, in the list there isn’t a combo of black and orange, but if there was you would put them in the middle of the list instead of at the end. eg

        The colours the teams wore were red, black and orange, blue, green and purple.

        Simple really. No mix up.

        Or even better, use a different word instead of “and” for the combo, eg.

        The colours the teams wore were red, black with orange, blue, green and purple.

          • In the example, I wrote the color list two ways to demonstrate the difference in meaning with or without the comma. You’re right; you could certainly change the order. If your list was (for example) required to be in alphabetical order, you might not have that option. Though I personally love and use the Oxford comma, I believe your solutions for avoiding it are valid. When in doubt, follow the style guide. When on your own, be deliberate about your style choices (as you clearly are).

            I have to wonder if technology isn’t playing some role in the Oxford comma’s rise in popularity. Export a CSV (comma separated values) file from Excel and the last two values in each row are separated by a comma. The logic in favor of that approach is so irrefutably obvious. English grammar is much more abstract and yet, we live in a high tech world. It’s not difficult to imagine the computer logic imposing itself on communication style once that logic becomes convention.

          • Ah, CSV files. Spent much of my professional (that is, pre-writer life) munging data from one computer system to another. Probably influenced my love of the Oxford comma.

            I sometimes write lists without any “and” at all: “Max was tired, lost, beaten.” Though I don’t believe a comma is the equivalent of the word “and” just because they serve the same purpose in sentence lists. An apple and a banana fill the same purpose, but I’d never consider them interchangeable, nor would I object to having an apple, and then a banana close together. I just did that for breakfast, in fact.

            When writing that sort of list in a novel, I’m going to do what’s least likely to take the reader out of the vicarious experience. Yes, good sentence structure and word choice can go a long way toward eliminating the kind of “Huh?” moment that breaks the thread, but including the Oxford comma offers much to clarity, and has never offended any reader who wasn’t also a professor of language, or a writer themselves. Since we read emotionally, not intellectually, while I wouldn’t characterize myself as obtuse when I’m reading, but I don’t want to stop to parse sentences, I want to race through a great mystery or adventure.

            I have yet to see an example of the Oxford comma causing confusion, yet we can all come up with examples where its omission does.

            Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough for a case where the additional comma causes a problem? Until then, I’m going to suggest that it is a matter of preference, not rule.

  5. Seeing the comma as a visual and perhaps pensive pause I try to hear the sound of what I’m writing as a reader would. Even with the serial comma some of those sentences are bad (which, of course, you know.)

    Consistency and commonsense sound like good writing rules. After all, commas don’t kill sentences. Bad writing kills sentences.

    • And yet, to me, that final comma sounds like an appropriate pause in a list. One could argue that just as a comma is unnecessary when two short phrases are joined:

      I’m tired and ready for bed.

      But handy when two long phrases are joined:

      After working all day I’m extremely tired, and I’m ready to hit the hay.

      A short list of items might not need commas:

      The flag was red white and blue.

      Whereas a more detailed list will benefit from them:

      The flag was bright red, brilliant white, and sapphire blue.

      One can argue about the correctness of one form over another, but deciding what punctuation best represents your writing voice is where individual style comes from. The serial comma makes sense to me, but I wouldn’t impose it on anyone who prefers otherwise.

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