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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,
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
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
"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
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
Bryan A. Garner, Garner's
Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press,
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots &
Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. London:
Profile Books Ltd., 2003.
Professional Training Company:
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