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The Serial Comma—So Much Over So Little

Who would have thought that the serial comma, quietly bringing clarity to a list or series in a sentence, would be the subject of passionate argument, much ink in grammar texts, and, yes, even surveys?

The serial comma, also called the Oxford or Harvard comma, is that innocuous squiggle before the final and or or in sentences such as "The flag is red, white, and blue" and "I want no ifs, ands, or buts." It is optional—but be careful where you say that. Lynne Truss writes in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, "There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."

The purpose of the serial comma is to prevent ambiguity, especially where the last element in the series consists of a pair joined by and, as in "We ate soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese." Omitting the comma in the sentence "The flag is red, white and blue" might not cause much ambiguity, but what about "He went to the store to buy milk, butter and eggs"? Is there a product on the shelf called "butter-and-eggs"? Maybe somewhere. Garner's Modern American Usage says that the argument whether to include the serial comma is "easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will."

The authors of an authoritative-looking website set out to trace the origin of the "Wrong Rule," taught by so many English teachers, that says the final comma in a series should be omitted. In the course of their research, they found that "except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma." Newspapers and magazines omit it to save space. My own research has yielded the same result, and I am an unapologetic proponent of the serial comma. Interestingly, Truss does not use it and says, "My own feeling is that one shouldn't be too rigid about the Oxford comma." Whether you choose to use it or not in your writing, all readers and editors of your work will agree: be consistent!

As to that survey I mentioned, it is being conducted by the West Coast Editor, newsletter of the Editors' Association of Canada, B.C. Branch, and asks members, are you for it or against it? Results in March 2008. I'll let you know.

References:

Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. London: Profile Books Ltd., 2003.

Professional Training Company: http://www.protrainco.com/essays/serial-comma.htm

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