The serial comma, also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, is a sure way to get writers and readers everywhere fired up. People who care about grammar almost always have a stance on its use. We want to know what you think about the serial comma and its usage in writing.
What Is It?
The serial comma is the comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list or series.
- With the serial comma: Please buy bread, milk, and eggs.
- Without the serial comma: Please buy bread, milk and eggs.
In this example, taking out the serial comma does not make much of a difference. The sentence is understandable either way. In some sentences, things get less clear. Here is a classic example, an imagined book dedication:
- To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
The reader may eventually be able to discern the meaning — that the book is dedicated to three separate entities — but it seems to imply one strange set of parents.
Who Uses It?
There is no finite answer to this question; some people use it and some do not. Originally, it was used by the Oxford and Harvard University presses, which led to its alternate name. It is still associated with academia and widely taught in schools. News reporters generally do not use it. They follow AP Style, which advises against using it unless absolutely necessary. One of AP Style’s main goals is to save space, and the simple sentences journalists aspire to are usually clear without the extra comma.
The main arguments for the comma are clarity and consistency. Sentences are most clear and readable with the extra comma. Even those who do not typically use the comma may sometimes have to. Those who argue for the comma say that, if the serial comma is ever going to be used, it should always be used.
The main argument against the comma is that is unnecessary. Simple sentences are clear without it, and instances when it is needed to reduce ambiguity can be solved in other ways.
The book dedication example used above can be clarified WITHOUT a serial comma:
- Unclear: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
- Clarified: To Ayn Rand, God and my parents.
The clarified example makes it obvious the dedication is to three separate entities, and there is no serial comma in sight. Sentences that are more complex probably cannot be solved by the serial comma and should instead be split into multiple sentences or completely retooled.
Should I Use It?
This is up to each writer, or whoever they are writing for. Students can find out their teachers’ preferences and apply them appropriately. Professional writers should follow the style guide or guidelines from their workplace. People who are writing for themselves can do whatever they want when it comes to the serial comma.
The most important thing when considering serial comma usage is consistency. Whether that means using or not using the serial comma is a matter of opinion. Share your thoughts with us on Facebook!