The Rules of the Sneaky Serial Comma

If there was ever a piece of punctuation to give us all fits, it’s the comma. When do you use it? When are you using it too much? Do I need a comma there?

Correct comma usage causes endless questions simply because there are so many rules.

Let’s worry about one comma in particular – the serial, or Oxford, comma. It’s the most controversial of the lot.

So what's a serial comma?

A serial comma is the last comma that typically appears in a list. For example:

If I had my way, I’d eat cake, pie, and cookies every day.

(Yes, I’m working on an empty stomach – sue me!)

The comma after “pie” in the sentence above is the serial comma.

Why do we care about this comma? Why is it even worthy of a post? That’s simple. Depending on the style guide you follow, you might not need it. But sometimes you do. And sometimes you don’t.

Official style guides like the MLA or Chicago manuals will tell you that you should always include the serial comma in your writing to avoid confusion in your sentences. But online and in print writing, we sometimes gloss over the finer points of that fussy style in deference to brevity and visual interest.

My sentence above would still be easy to understand and a bit simpler to read if we removed the serial comma:

If I had my way, I’d eat cake, pie and cookies every day.

But things aren't always so simple. In my basic example above I was creating a list of similar things that automatically grouped. Let’s look at another example. Here’s a sentence with the serial comma in place:

I like my best friends, diamonds, and Hugh Jackman.

Innocent enough, right? Who doesn't like friends, diamonds and Wolverine?

But let’s skip the serial comma. Unfortunately (or fortunately for me), the sentence changes meaning completely:

I like my best friends, diamonds and Hugh Jackman.

Suddenly it appears that diamonds really are a girl’s best friend! But who cares about that? I’m obviously too busy chillin’ with my BFF, Hugh.

Whoops! So we should always use the serial comma to avoid that sort of slip, right? Not so fast!

The Associated Press style book actually says NOT to use the serial comma in the sentences above. So if you've been skipping your comma in lists, you’re clear again.

But proceed with caution. Before you make it a habit to skip that serial comma completely, double-check your sentence. If it doesn't make sense you have two options. Rewrite the sentence or put the comma back in and be done with it!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one more reason English grammar is hard to love and easy to hate.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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3 thoughts on “The Rules of the Sneaky Serial Comma”

  1. I folloow the house style of the publication I’m writing for. In my everyday work I use the serial comma.

  2. It’s now clear to me how important the serial comma is. Thank you for sharing it helps to polish my writing and grammar.


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