Serial commas: With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

Call it what you will: the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma. It is the cause of much consternation to writers and editors. It causes fights in bars (okay, discussions in libraries). Devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style insist on its use. Those who adhere to Associated Press style consider it superfluous. And there are those who say that it doesn’t matter whether you use the serial comma or not, so long as you are consistent.

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

I have always been a believer in the serial comma because I think that it eliminates the possibility for confusion. If you’re looking at a list of 1, 2, and 3, it’s clear that 1, 2, and 3 are three distinct items. Consider the example of this hypothetical book dedication from the Chicago Manual of Style:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope

You can picture the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style chuckling smugly at the notion that without the serial comma, readers might think that the hypothetical author’s parents are Mother Teresa and the pope. The absence of a serial comma might cause the reader to think that “Mother Teresa and the pope” is one unit equal to the author’s parents. As a believer in the serial comma, I’m laughing right along with them.

If you look at the popular style guides that do not use the serial comma, they are mostly related to the news industry (Associated Press, The Times, The New York Times, etc.). As a former journalism student and journalist, I can tell you that many styles espoused by newspapers are designed more for conserving ink than for clarity of writing (that’s why you see single quotes used in headlines instead of the more correct double quote). The style guides that call for the serial comma (the American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name a few) are more concerned with clarity of writing.

Opponents of the serial comma will argue that it can sometimes actually cause confusion rather than clear it up. A surprisingly engaging and in-depth entry on Wikipedia uses this example, again a hypothetical book dedication, this time inspired by editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

Here, the reader might believe that Ayn Rand is the author’s mother when the serial comma is used, but without the serial comma, the confusion is eliminated (“To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”). I argue that you have to work a lot harder to create a scenario where the serial comma causes confusion rather than eliminating it. Another example from the same Wikipedia entry is this:

My favorite types of sandwiches are pastrami, ham, cream cheese and peanut butter and jelly.

Without a comma after “cream cheese,” the reader is not sure whether the peanut butter belongs with cream cheese or jelly. With that, I’m off to the library to pick a fight with a journalist and then go out for cream cheese and peanut butter sandwiches.

13 thoughts on “Serial commas: With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

  1. As an interpretive writer, poet, and former college English instructor, I support your position on the serial comma. A comma is a tiny thing, but it can be that little stitch that holds together an intended meaning.

  2. I support the use of the serial comma. In fact, I was irked that I had to learn to NOT use it for some grad school compositions. I’m not sure if it was APA regulation or a professor’s preference that insisted commas are interchangeable with the conjunction ‘and;’ thus to include a comma before the ‘and’ is to say, ‘and and.’

    With that logic, why don’t I use commas exclusively, omit that three letter word from my vocabulary? Yeah, that doesn’t work.

    But why isn’t ‘the pope’ capitalized?

  3. I don’t think the serial comma is necessary and I fall under “those who say that it doesn’t matter whether you use the serial comma or not, so long as you are consistent” category.

    Paul, let us know how you feel about the serial comma in the use of a logo or in a design where you could be attempting to eliminate every possible character for space issues or to improve overall design. I understand that it may improve legibility/readability but it often looks heavy to me. Being sensitive to weight issues, I don’t want a design to be unnecessarily husky.

    Peanut butter Capt’n Crunch, Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms are my three favorite cereals. Yes, it is possible to have three favorites.

  4. I’m in the Pro-Serial Comma Camp. Also in the Pro-Semi Colon Camp and the slightly more contentious One-Word-Sentences-Are-Sometimes-Okay-Camp.

    Obviously from the above sentence I also prefer okay over OK.

  5. I really enjoyed your article Paul, the insights, and the humor. I don’t think I’ve given enough thought to serial commas in the past, and wonder how often I’ve been inconsistent in using, or not using them in a piece of poetry or prose. Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks, Kirk and Wren. You guys are too nice.

    Shea, I think that most rules of grammar go out the window when it comes to designing logos or identity systems.

    And Shea, did you list three favorite cereals just so that you could write a list of three items without the serial comma?

  7. You bet I did. I also did it to publically display my love for cereal, illustrate the point I was making and to poke fun at you (Paul).

    The staff archeologist, at Parkin Archeological State Park (where I work), and I have had this discussion several times while reviewing documents. He is a big supporter of the serial comma as well. I find myself giving in to the serial comma just to keep things copacetic. I’m not sure what that says about me.

    It seems that most of those who are pro-serial are vocal as well. I’m not finding much company on my side of the fence. I’m okay with that, Junior High School prepared me well for this moment.

  8. Shea, you are truly in the minority. Go serial commas! I am a big fan of commas in general, and I am often accused of using too many of them. I do think they (serial commas) avoid confusion in most situations.

    Sorry Shea, I can’t agree with you here, and I will probably continue to be comma happy. Although I do applaud your choice of cereals. Corn pops, however, was mysteriously left out. Very sad.

    Number of commas in this comment: 6

  9. Kirk, I am a fan of hyphenated phrases.

    Paul, thanks for the link to the capitalization explanation. Very helpful.

  10. I LOVE commas. And I hate reformatting to someone’s whim. In the wee hours of the night —after a bar fight (no wait that was a heated discussion in the library) — I found an interesting piece of software that takes your copy and automatically reformats it into whichever format the journal or the professor calls for. I fell in love instantly; I agreed with the student who’d written the software that its possible to spend more time changing formats than researching . We must hope the software is more knowledgeable than the spelling of its name “Eazypaper”. I have the link but wasn’t certain if appropriate to post on this log.

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