Serial Commas Are Serious Stuff

Serial commas are commas that separate items in a series and in particular pertain to the use of a comma with the last item listed. Many people ignore this rule, and I’m pretty sure it’s standard policy (to ignore) this rule in AP (article writing) style. which doesn’t make sense to me. It’s very important to always use a serial comma.

The example often used to show the need for the serial comma is this line: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Mother Teresa, for inspiring me.” Well, by not using the serial comma between God and Mother Teresa,  you can see how the meaning of this sentence gets really wacky. I mean–who in their right mind would claim their parents are God and Mother Teresa? The way to punctuate this correctly so as to avoid such a weird interpretation is “I’d like to thank my parents, God, and Mother Teresa for inspiring me.”

Entire books have been written on this topic (see Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation for a great book that stresses the need to be careful with those tiny bits of punctuation).

So, whenever you have a list, be sure you use a comma after each item in that list. You don’t necessarily need one after the very last item—that depends upon the phrase to follow, but we won’t get into that in this post.

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  1. Ah, the Oxford comma, or serial comma, as you call it. I believe the rules are consistently applied in British journalism, but you know how grammar rules vary across the pond, so we sometimes get befuddled here. How commas add clarity is a sentence-by-sentence consideration. And if not for the confusion, we editors would see less work, yes? Thanks for your posts. They are always relevant.

    1. UK punctuation is very different from US. You all use single quotes and stick commas and such outside the quotation marks. You’d think centuries ago the language would have all coalesced into some consistency but it hasn’t. I particularly like the way Brits emphasize different accents of words, like conTROVersy rather than CONtroversy. And you keep your eyes skinned while we keep ours peeled. I recall getting very confused on the phone when the operator rattled off a phone number with a bunch of aughts, treys, double aughts. It sounded more like listening to a description in a novel rather than a list of numerals.

      1. Never heard of eyes skinned before I use eyes peeled and I am English. Always enjoy the thoughts behind your articles.

  2. I love your blog and haven’t commented before (because I usually agree with you), but when it comes to serial commas I have to disagree very strong that one SHOULD put in that last comma. For one, the Chicago Manual of Style makes it one of their standards, and they don’t do that lightly. grant the AP style guide takes the opposite approach, but it’s also geared more toward journalists. Fiction writers should adhere to CMS.

    But the reason I say one should always use that final comma is not only for clarity, but also for consistency. If you get into the habit of putting it in only when you think it’s necessary, I can guarantee you’ll leave it out when you shouldn’t.

    So, as much as you’re trying to give good advice this time, you’re actually making things more complicated. It’s not wrong to add that comma, and it hurts nothing, so why not include it all the time and not worry about when you should use it and when it can be left out?

    1. I’m not sure what you’re saying here. I am saying you MUST use the serial comma every time, with US style. I don’t know how you got confused. “So, whenever you have a list, be sure you use a comma after each item in that list.”

      1. It was your last parenthetical remark that confused me. I took it that you should use the last comma unless you needed it. Upon a second read, I see what you meant now. My apologies for misinterpreting.

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