Using the Serial Comma

Grammar and punctuation contain elements that are subjective and those that are objective. One decision a writer must make is whether or not to use the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma). In some circles the use or non-use is stipulated, but in many instances it is a choice.  I do not recall ever omitting a serial comma intentionally. I use the serial comma with the same regularity that I wear pants; I just don’t tend to forget (go ahead, look back through my blog posts, I bet you won’t find any AWOL serial commas).

For those of you unfamiliar with the serial comma, it is the comma that precedes the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items.  Example:

With: My evening plans include a glass of Merlot, a good book, and a healthy dose of  beautiful silence.

Without: My evening plans include a glass of Merlot, a good book and a healthy dose of beautiful silence.

I recall being taught from an early age that using or omitting the serial comma was acceptable, though I always liked it. Whenever I encounter a missing serial comma in a book, article, or casual writing I feel bad for the sentence (even if it appears in a publication that mandates omission). It’s like seeing a person missing one of their front teeth.

Regulation of the serial comma doesn’t bother me as long as its use is required. If it is forbidden than I hate the regulation. I once had professor that disliked the serial comma (she called it the Oxford comma). She crossed it out in the first paper I handed in for the class, so I decided to talk to her about it.

Me: “Dr. (redacted) I noticed you are not a fan of the serial comma.”

Prof: “You mean the Oxford comma?”

Me: “Oxford comma. Serial comma. Harvard comma. Whatever you would like to call it, I like it. Why don’t you like it?

Prof: “Commas are overused, I eliminate them as frequently as I possibly can. Overuse of commas, and using serial commas, makes writing tedious to read. You should develop the habit of dropping unnecessary commas”

Me: “If reading was a race I would agree, but it is not. A comma serves as an indicator for a pause. When used properly commas help a reader identify the cadence of the writer.”

Prof: (looks at me in amusement)

Me: “The serial comma brings about equality. Each item in a list is separate. Not only is it unfair to penalize the last item in a list, it also looks bad. It’s like a picket fence with identical spacing between slats. Omitting the serial comma ruins the aesthetic of the fence.”

Prof: (laughing) “I stand by my prior statement.”

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3 Comments

Filed under General

3 responses to “Using the Serial Comma

  1. Paul B

    Vampire Weekend doesn’t care too much for this topic.

    • I had not heard that song before. Now I think the opening line will be stuck in my head for a long time. I can assure you that I most definitely give a %#&$ about an Oxford comma.

  2. I always use the Serial/Oxford/Harvard comma. Always. Here’s an example of why using it helps to clarify the meaning:
    http://jaywho.com/post/10766340609/the-joys-of-the-oxford-comma

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