Jumping into the Ring with the Serial Comma

Think of a typical writer: slightly introverted, non-athletic, and of course, bespectacled. There are certainly many exceptions to this stereotype, but most of us fit the image to varying degrees.

Wrestling over the serial commaOne characteristic that is rarely ever assigned to writers is that of fighter. Sure, we may wield the poison pen from time-to-time, but rarely do we become full-fledged mixed-martial artists. However, there is one contentious topic that will make even the most reclusive wordsmith break out the TapouTĀ® t-shirt and execute a mean flying leg kick: the serial comma.

A serial comma is simply a comma after the second-to-last item in a series of three or more things:

Chicago is known for hot dogs, pizza, and Maxwell Street Polish sausages.

Here is the same example without the serial comma:

Chicago is known for hot dogs, pizza and Maxwell Street Polish sausages.

The anti-serial comma contingent argue that the final comma is unnecessary, while those in favor of the serial comma believe that it prevents ambiguity.

The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer because even current style guides disagree. I personally prefer the serial comma because it’s just a tiny punctuation mark—why shouldn’t we use all available means to prevent confusion like this:

I went to the store with my two nieces, Grandpa Joe and Uncle Bob.

Well, I better get out of the ring now, or my glasses might get broken.

 

Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

Comments

  1. If your bespectacled writer is carrying a notebook and wearing a press pass, she probably does not use the serial comma. If my memory serves me correctly, AP Style tells reporters not to use that final comma. It’s strange that we can’t all get on the same page with this rule, and you’re right about it eliminating confusion.

    • You are absolutely right, Lisa! AP shuns the serial comma. I believe this rejection is due to the fact that print journalism is dealing with confined spaces (narrow columns), so every character counts a little more. Plus, I sense a wee bit of antagonism between journalism and commercial writing, so that may also play a factor in why we’re not all on the same page. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the primary voice in business writing, supports it. And as far as I know, so does MLA.

      I’m afraid this punctuation war may never end ;)

  2. I’ll stand and fight for the serial comma to the bitter end! Anything for readability. I understand the space issue in journalism, but with all of the wonders of electronic publishing, maybe even that argument will get tossed aside. I imagine those AP holdouts won’t budge, though. That’s OK, because neither will I! :-)

  3. Cassandra, I’m glad to hear from another serial comma crusader! Based on comments I have seen on social media lately, I think our numbers may actually be growing. We can only hope!

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