Series Commas: The Comma Before "And"
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?
The 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.
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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)|
|The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition|
University Of Chicago Press
|Modern American Usage: A Guide|
Hill and Wang
|A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Diss...|
University Of Chicago Press
|The Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, U...|
|Scientific Style And Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, ...|
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...|
Your Turn! To Comma, or Not to Comma?
Do follow Chicago serial comma rules? Or are you an AP serial comma killer?
Series commas are for losers.
Serial commas rule!
Serial Commas Prevent Confusion: A Real-Life Example
For want of a comma, Merle Haggard married two famous men.
The 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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