Serial commas: Do you, or don’t you?

Whether you drop in a comma before the “and” or “or” in a series might be the most controversial topic among writers. So, get your swords out, because here we go …

Ragan.com and PR Daily readers seem preoccupied with the serial comma. Several readers of my posts have commented on my use of the serial comma, quoting different style guides and telling me it’s wrong to put a comma before the “and” or the “or” in a list.

Invariably, my response is that I use the serial comma because the style guide I follow says to use it.

I know this is a provocative topic. I can’t think of anything that gets writers and editors more fired up than debating the pros and cons of the serial comma. And, as author Lynne Truss says, “Never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

I have no intention of arguing for or against the use of the serial comma. I only want to point out that the rules for this particular punctuation mark can vary from style guide to style guide. Everybody . . . stay frosty.

The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma) is the mark that appears before the conjunction in a list. “I don’t want to hear any whining, complaining, or name-calling.” The comma before the “or” is the serial comma.

Some style guides, such as the AMA Manual of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style, advocate for the use of the serial comma to avoid ambiguity. For example, a serial comma in the following sentence would make its meaning more clear:

“Please state name, age, sex and housing requirements.”

Other style guides—most importantly the AP Style Guide—say to avoid the serial comma. One argument for leaving the comma out is that it’s unnecessary in simple sentences, and leaving it out often does not change the meaning of the sentence. The classic example: “The flag is red, white and blue.”

When I was in college, my journalism professors (following AP style) said not to use the serial comma. My English professors (following the Chicago Manual of Style) said to use it. I quickly learned that what I thought was an unbreakable punctuation rule was really a style choice. And I adjusted my style accordingly. (Can’t be making B’s on those English papers, after all.)

No matter where you stand in the serial comma debate, it’s essential to stay flexible and apply the rules according to the “house style” of the publication or website for which you write. The same goes for editors. Whatever your rules are, apply them consistently.

Readers, any serial comma stories to share?

Laura Hale Brockway is the author of the grammar/usage/random thoughts blog, impertinentremarks.com.

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