The comma has always been a bone of contention for many people. We all use it everyday that we may very well be taking it for granted. Over the holidays, I found myself in the middle of a very interesting discussion about the use of the serial comma. ((Yeah, talking about punctuation at the beach may not be normal for some, but it does keep you on your toes!))
The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma. Sometimes, it is even referred to as the series comma. Whatever name you call it, the serial comma is used in lists – right before the coordinating conjunction. Let’s take a look at an example for the sake of clarity.
We need eggs, bacon, and tomatoes.
The last comma in that sentence is the serial comma.
Now let’s go back to that discussion I had last week. The topic was whether or not the use of the serial comma is correct. All my life, I have been using that serial comma, believing it to be correct. As adamant as I was about my stand, the conviction of the person I was talking to led me to double check my “facts”.
Sure enough, a little bit of research has led me to the conclusion that the use of the serial comma in the English language is correct. However, this is a matter of style. ((Style does tend to make things a whole lot more complicated!)) Adherents of the Chicago Manual of Style will use the serial comma. Those that follow the AP Stylebook will not. The serial comma is often used in American English but not in British English. In other languages, the use of the serial comma may even be incorrect!
Going back to that example above, it is also correct to write it this way.
We need eggs, bacon and tomatoes.
I have to admit that it doesn’t look right to me, but just because I think that doesn’t mean it is wrong, does it? I think the more important thing is to be consistent. If you use the serial comma in one sentence, then use that style all throughout your piece.
Photo via Brain Sprouts
Rob Schneider says
I was originally taught American English and then learned Australian English. The spelling part was easy, but the little things like serial commas and placement of punctuation within or outside of quotes was not. To me, placing a comma before “and” was a big no-no until I discovered that leaving it out is a “no-no” with others. I stick with it, though, because “bacon, eggs and coffee” looks and feels right with me and I see it more frequently than I see “bacon, eggs, and coffee.”
When I look these punctuation problems up, I usually go with Canadian opinions, because they tend to take the middle ground.
I guess my point is that now that we are writing for an international audience, we’re always going to offend someone. I try to please my clients first and have never had any complaints about it.
Noemi Twigg says
“I try to please my clients first and have never had any complaints about it.” -> I agree that the audience is a prime consideration when deciding on which style to use. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Rob.
In reading this, I can’t help but think of the song “Oxford Comma” by Vampire Weekend. It starts “who gives a *bleep* about an oxford comma.”
That said, I am in favor of the oxford comma, it adds structure.
Noemi Twigg says
I actually ran across the lyrics of this song when I did a Google search on the serial comma. I have never listened to the song, but perhaps it is time to check YouTube. 😉
The two most significant uses of the comma are to signify a pause/emphasis and to clarify meaning, specifically in cases where lack of punctuation can give a sentence or clause a different meaning than intended.
I was always taught that it wasn’t necessary but neither was it wrong to use the serial comma. However, when you consider the example and others like it, the conjunction serves the purpose a comma otherwise would. Were it customary to not use the “and” and to instead use a comma (eggs, bacon, tomatoes — a list method I’ve seen used), then you would obviously need the comma (well, not obviously, but it does prevent confusion as to the possibility of a product called “eggs bacon” or “bacon tomatoes,” which sounds delicious).
Long comment made short, it is my opinion that the “and” serves the purpose of a comma, and if there is no obvious confusion without the comma, there is no need for it, and one might say the unnecessary comma suggests a pause or emphasis on the last element of the list, which may change the way it is perceived.
I will admit that I am guilty of overusing commas, though.
Some would say that using a comma as a pause is a myth. In fact, some of my teachers were against this comma pause, and they taught me that it was wrong.
“Should There Be a Comma After the Last Item on a List?”
Don’t you mean “After the Penultimate Item” or “Before the Last Item”?
Noemi Twigg says
You got me there, XP1! Thanks. 🙂