Series Commas: The Comma Before "And"

by tandemonimom

Series commas, a.k.a. serial commas, are a hot topic with the cool grammar geek crowd. They're also called Oxford commas or Harvard commas; now doesn't that sound erudite?

Is a Second Comma Like a Third Wheel?

Do we need the serial comma before the AND?

Serial CommasThe use of the serial comma (also called the series comma, the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, or simply the comma before and) is a debated issue in American writing. One single authority, and a few authors, claim the comma before and is unnecessary ... unless it's necessary for clarity. Then try to remember to use it. All other American authorities say, clearly and simply, use the serial comma!

For one, it is never confusing to have the comma before the last item in a series, where it is frequently confusing to have it missing. For another, even if the author thinks the series is clear without the comma, the reader may encounter a clarity bump that could have been avoided with the simple stroke of a key. And for final, it is easier to always use it even when it is not necessary for clarity than to try to remember to use it when it is necessary for clarity.

Go Chicago! Series comma rules!
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Serial Commas Are Necessary for Clarity

Even when it's clear without the series comma, it's good to be consistent!

Are there cases where the meaning of a series is perfectly clear without the serial comma? Of course there are. But even when it is clear without the comma before and, it is good practice to be consistent, so that you don't eliminate the comma in a situation where it is really needed. In addition, if you are not in the habit of using the series comma, it is all too easy to overlook an instance when your series is not at all clear. After all, as the writer, you know what you mean; and since even when you proofread you will still (one hopes) know what you meant, unless you are a careful and consistent proofreader, you'll skip right past the confusing part, leave the comma out, and leave your reader to flounder for your meaning.

For a somewhat ridiculous example to illustrate the point, what would you like for lunch? We have ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly and watercress and mayonnaise sandwiches. Now, doesn't that sound appetizing?

It's a single keystroke. The vast majority of us are not writing a newsletter or journal where space is at such a premium that a weensy little comma would make any difference. And yet, that weensy little comma can make a great deal of difference to your reader, especially if you are not as crystal clear as perhaps you think you are in your writing style. So ... why not just add the serial comma?

What, then, are the arguments for omitting the last comma? Only one is cogent - the saving of space. In the narrow width of a newspaper column this saving counts for more than elsewhere, which is why the omission is so nearly universal in journalism. But here or anywhere one must question whether the advantage outweighs the confusion caused by the omission.

~ Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide

Grammar Authorities Who Call for the Series Comma

Strunk & White, Turabian, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern American Usage, Gregg Reference, Scientific Style & Format
The Elements of Style (4th Edition)
$15.24  $10.5
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
University Of Chicago Press
Only $57.9
Modern American Usage: A Guide
Hill and Wang
$30.0  $21.84
A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Diss...
University Of Chicago Press
$22.44  $4.29
The Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, U...
Career Education
$96.75  $66.16
Scientific Style And Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, ...
Not Avail
$46.0  $24.71

Grammar Authorities Who Eliminate the Serial Comma

Only the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists calls for eliminating the serial commas (except when it is necessary to use one, of course).
The Associated Press Stylebook 2009 (Associated Press Sty...
Basic Books
Only $0.89
Chicago Style: Series comma rules!
Or are you an AP serial comma killer?

Your Turn! To Comma, or Not to Comma?

Do follow Chicago serial comma rules? Or are you an AP serial comma killer?
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Series commas are for losers.
Treasures By Brenda on 06/13/2011

I'm not a serial comma girl, either.

GonnaFly on 06/12/2011

Here in Australia, we don't use the comma before the "and" unless it is needed for clarity.

Serial commas rule!
sheilamarie on 04/27/2012

Commas in a series are so much more friendly. I can remember being taught to use it all through school, and then in one high school class being told it was now old fashioned and no longer necessary. I guess that teacher had been taught by a journalist.

vbright on 07/03/2011

I normally use a comma before the word "and". I also, sadly, am a comma queen and sorely overuse them. :(

Susan52 on 06/08/2011

I am very glad to learn that most authorities say include the serial comma. I'm a huge fan!

Jimmie on 06/08/2011

Chicago style says no comma or comma? I'm confused. Whatever it is, I use the comma before and. I learned it that way and find that it's much clearer.

petunia on 06/08/2011

I have always been accused of too many commas!

Serial Commas Prevent Confusion: A Real-Life Example

For want of a comma, Merle Haggard married two famous men.

Merle Haggard and his male wivesThe caption on this newspaper photograph reads: "The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall."

Well, we all know Merle Haggard's ex-wives were women, but on first read this sentence clearly seems to indicate that his ex-wives were Kris and Robert. What's wrong with a serial comma to eliminate the double-take?


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Punctuate in Style!

Serial Commas Prevent Confusion: Another Real-Life Example

For want of a comma, Nelson Mandela became a perverted deity.

Nelson MandelaThe Times, discussing a Peter Ustinov documentary, somewhat humorously indicated that “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

More Fun with Grammar!

Yes, I said fun with grammar. Deal with it.
He and I ... her and me ... How about a simple grammatical rule for when to say "I" or "me"?
"Begs the question" does NOT mean what you think it means!

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Updated: 12/15/2011, tandemonimom
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Comma Comments

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Mira on 06/17/2015

These are funny examples :). I'm all for the serial comma myself. It makes for a better flow of the sentence.

Alex on 09/22/2012

I find it funny that the "Go Chicago" shirt omits the comma for direct address.

sheilamarie on 04/27/2012

You've got some great examples of confusion caused by leaving out the comma before the "and." Very entertaining!

Treasures By Brenda on 06/13/2011

Great page, Carma. I love that quote in red.

tandemonimom on 06/08/2011

Susan, I think perhaps people are more accustomed to reading news articles than books, and journalists are taught not to use it (for space considerations originally) so they don't see the series comma in use.

Susan52 on 06/08/2011

It's interesting that most authorities say to use the comma before the "and" since these days it seems most people don't use it. I learned to write the "with the comma" way and have tried to stick with that consistently.

Love the grammar t-shirt designs!

tandemonimom on 06/08/2011

Well, the grammar nazis are the main ones I want to keep happy! ;-)

Jimmie on 06/08/2011

The grammar nazi in me loves this series you're doing!

petunia on 06/08/2011

After high school and college, where I was always marked down for too many commas, I now use them any place that feels conversationally right to me! I know that is not correct but comma rules just don't seem reasonable sometimes! I am totally enjoying your grammar and punctuation series and I hope you write many more of these!

Dianne on 06/08/2011

Thanks for the education on the use of serial commas!

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