Home > Grammar > The Serial Comma: To Use or Not to Use

The Serial Comma: To Use or Not to Use

What is it?

The Serial comma, also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, is the comma right before the conjunction of the final item in a list of three or more items/phrases. Read the examples that follow:

  • I will dedicate my book to Tom, Dick, or Harry.
  • Could you buy some eggs, milk, and cheese?
  • Today I need to go the bank, mail some packages at the post office, and buy a new dress.

Who Uses It:

 (Americans who don’t write for newspapers!)

The majority of U.S. style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, recommend always using the serial comma. Their reason is that omitting the final comma may cloud the clarity of the sentence, whereas including it never will.  If you are writing the next best-selling novel, I would recommend you use the serial comma.

For example, read the two sentences below:

  • I went shopping with my sisters, Sally and Jane.
  • I went shopping with my sisters, Sally, and Jane.

Who did I go shopping with? In the first sentence, you are left shaking your head as you wonder how many people I went shopping with. Did I go shopping with my sisters, whose names are Sally and Jane? Or did I go shopping with my sisters, plus Sally and Jane?

In the second sentence, it is clearly stated that I went shopping with my sisters, plus Sally and Jane.

Using the serial comma always brings clarity. Therefore, the serial comma is the preferred style in the U.S., unless you write for a newspaper. They follow a different set of rules as explained in the next section.

Who Does Not Use It:

(Americans who DO write for newspapers—along with the British, the Australians, and the Canadians!)

If you write for a U.S. newspaper, there are variations to the usage of the serial comma. The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the golden standard of style for most American newspapers, agrees to using commas to separate items in a series, but states that one should not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series as shown in the following:

  • I will share my chocolate with Jane, Esther and Nancy.
  • Could you give that to John, Jack or Tommy?
The Associated Press Stylebook gives several exceptions to the above rule:
1) A comma is required before the final conjunction in a series if one of the elements in the series requires a conjunction of its own. In simple words? If one of the elements needs its own personal ‘and,’ such as with macaroni and cheese, the serial comma is required. See the examples below:
  • The buffet included roast beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and macaroni and cheese.
  • The bakery served blueberry, cranberry and walnut, raspberry, and apple scones.

2) A comma is required before the final conjunction in a complex series of phrases. See the example below:

  • When editing a story, one needs to check for grammatical errors, to check the spelling and sentence structure, and to watch for inconsistencies in the story line.

We covered the Americans. What about the British, Australians, and Canadians? The general consensus is that they do not use the serial comma in simple lists unless its omission would lead to a lack of clarity in the sentence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rosie Cochran

I am a pastor’s wife, former missionary, mother of four great sons, and author of three books: BetrayedIdentity Revealed, and A Murder Unseen. (Available at:  Amazon.com.) I have a passion for God, my family, and writing! Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Have a question? Email Me!

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Categories: Grammar
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