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The Serial (Oxford) Comma | For the Want of a Nail

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

–Benjamin Franklin

Okay, let’s keep things in perspective, shall we? Comma rules are not the most important components of human communication, right? However, the simple comma does impact the specific meaning of a sentence, as well as how the sentence is interpreted.

For the want of a comma…

Comma Rules

22 Comma Rules

–A man’s civil rights were lost. The Louisiana Supreme ruled that accused and self-confessed rapist, Warren Demesme, was not asserting his right to counsel when he stated, “This is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”

The Orleans Parish district attorneys argued that the lack of the comma between “lawyer” and “dog” meant that the accused was asking for a “lawyer dog,” not a “lawyer, dawg.” Now, no one would defend the self-confessed actions of the accused, but Americans do uphold the Constitutional right of the accused to an attorney and the right “to remain silent.” The comma (or lack thereof) certainly has significance in this case.

For the want of a comma…

–Your grandfather was cannibalized. “Let’s eat Grandpa.” The comma (or lack thereof) would certainly matter to your grandfather.

Now to be clear, the above examples are issues of commas placed before nouns of direct address. No one argues that this comma rule is superfluous. However, Americans are divided in their views on the serial comma rule (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma rule). For a refresher, the serial comma is a comma placed before the coordinating conjunctions and or or when listing three or more items. The use, misuse, or non-use of the serial comma has its own consequences:

For the want of a serial comma…

–$10,000,000 was lost in a Maine court judgment. In a class action lawsuit against a dairy company regarding overtime pay for its truck drivers, the workers prevailed because the state laws on overtime regulations did not include a serial comma. (See Daniel Victor’s March 16, 2017 article in the Washington Post for the details.)

In sum, punctuation, including the serial comma, does affect meaning. 

To include or not include the serial comma…

Now, I’m sure that most of you already have made up your minds regarding whether we should or should not use the serial comma. Those who don’t care have stopped reading by now or never looked at this article.

My take is that your views have been chiefly influenced by one or both of two factors: 1. What you read 2. Your most influential English teacher

  1. If you read online news, blogs, posts, texts, and emails as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text without the serial comma. If you read novels or technical materials, manuals, and reports as your primary daily reading, you are exposed to a high percentage of text with the serial comma. English teachers used to characterize these distinctions as informal and formal reading, but these lines have become blurred in the digital age.
  2. We tend to dig in and defend what we have been taught. Our English teachers taught us one way and marked us wrong if we used the other way. As an English teacher at the middle school, high school, and college levels and author of numerous grammar books and a writing style manual, I’ll let you in on a little secret: We English teachers don’t know the comma rules better than the average educated American. We never had a graduate level class on writing mechanics. 

My take? I value the use of the serial comma for three reasons: clarity, consistency, and conformity. However, its usage should be dictated by the writing genre.

How to Use Serial Commas

Serial Commas

Clarity

Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford, 2009) nicely clarifies the issue of clarity with or without the serial comma:

“Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities whereas including it never will” (Garner 676).

A few specific examples demonstrate why the serial comma provides clarity and avoids ambiguity.

The serial comma permits the use of compound subjects or objects in lists. (Remember, compound means two or more.)

Example without the Serial Comma: For lunch I enjoy hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and fish. In this example, “peanut butter and jelly” is a compound object. A serial comma following would add clarity and prevent a truly gross sandwich.

Additionally, I’m not comma crazy, but I would also use a comma when listing only two items in a list if the and or or coordinating conjunction joins a compound subject or object. Example without the Serial Comma: On our summer trip to Britain, we want to visit the Fox and Hound and Stratford upon Avon. Most would agree that a comma following “Hound” would clear things up quite a bit for the reader.

Failing to use the serial comma can produce problems with appositives. Remember that an appositive identifies, describes, defines, or explains what comes before or after a part of speech (usually a noun or a pronoun). Most of the funny examples that you see posted to argue in favor of the serial comma involve confusing appositives.

Example without the Serial Comma: I just finished mailing letters to my children, Santa Claus and Jimmy Fallon; At the banquet we dined with good old friends, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; At the Halloween party I danced with Mrs. Peabody’s two ex-husbands, Wonder Woman and Cleopatra.

Notice that in the above examples, appositives become confusing when the first item listed in a series is a common noun (an uncapitalized idea, person, place, or thing), followed by two or more proper nouns (a capitalized person, place, or thing).

Now, articles which purport to be objective regarding the serial comma usually trot out confusing appositives to argue why serial commas can be just as ambiguous as the lack thereof.

Example with the Serial Comma: We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, the reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift.

Those using this sentence example (serial killers? No, too harsh) suggest that three women may be inferred here. However, their argument sets up a straw dog to prove their point. The sentence is not an example of an ambiguous serial comma at all; it is a mistake in syntax (the order of words in a sentence). A good English teacher would suggest either of these two revisions: 1. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian (the reality television star) and the delightful Taylor Swift. 2. We ate dinner with Kim Kardashian, who is a reality television star, and the delightful Taylor Swift. The first sentence uses a parenthetical insertion and the second uses a non-restrictive relative clause.

Consistency

In addition to providing clarity, the serial comma rule is also consistent with other Standard American English punctuation. Specifically, the serial comma rule is consistent with other punctuation rules regarding the separation of items in a list.

For example, semicolons may be used to separate long phrases or clauses in a list. No anti-serial comma journalist would ever abandon the last semicolon in the following list:

Semicolon Example: The Martin landed on Earth; the Venetian attempted to communicate; and the Air Force Captain asserted her belief that extraterrestrials did, indeed, exist.

Moreover, the use of the serial comma appeals to our sense of parallelism. Parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation are characteristics of consistent, predictable, memorable, reader-friendly writing. As Mary Norris, writing in The New Yorker, states, “If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.”

Example: Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln’s example shows the impact of parallel ideas, grammatical structures, and punctuation. Without the serial comma in the sentence above, the cadence of the writing and speech would be altered and inconsistent with the other parallel forms in The Gettysburg Address.

Those proposing the elimination of the serial comma always seem to add the following caveat to their position: Drop the serial comma unless its elimination would be confusing to the reader. Inconsistency is built into their rule; such is not the case for the serial comma rule. Such is the stated position of the only major style guide which supports the elimination of the serial comma.

Conformity

Only the Associated Press (AP) stylebook supports dropping the serial comma “unless deemed absolutely necessary.” Admittedly, the AP position has wielded tremendous influence. Following AP style, newspapers uniformly omit the serial comma. Both prestigious papers, such as The New York Times and tabloids, such as The National Enquirer, avoid the comma. Some magazines, such as People and Variety, do so as well. Furthermore, the lack of the serial comma is also firmly entrenched in digital media, largely due to the AP influence. Because of the pervasiveness of such digital news, the serial comma’s days may be numbered.

However, the use of the serial comma is supported in the overwhelming majority of academic style guides: Chicago, Turabian, Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual 8.27, 8.28. Also, contrary to much of what you may have heard, the serial comma has not been abandoned in all periodicals. For example,  The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine adhere to its usage.

Additionally, the respected Online Writing Lab of Purdue University (a favorite go-to guide for teachers and students) supports the serial comma rule.

Clearly we have a divergence of authoritative opinion and common usage regarding the serial comma. Despite the clear advantages of the serial comma in terms of clarity and consistency, conformity to the dictates of the writing genre (and the editor or teacher’s demands) makes the most practical sense. I’ll close with a few pragmatic applications:

  1. When writing a newspaper article, omit the serial comma.
  2. When writing an article for a blog or magazine, ask the editor whether or not to use the serial comma. Conform to whomever is paying the bills.
  3. When writing informally on the web, in letters, cards, emails, texts, posts,flyers, bulletins, etc., pick your poison, but be consistent as possible. Try not to judge others’ usage too harshly in this transitional “no-man’s land.”
  4. When writing reports, essays, narratives, novels, and documents, use the serial comma.
  5. Teachers should teach the serial comma and expect its usage in formal academic writing. However, the discussion of its use in different writing genre and in the evolution of our language is also productive. Using the serial comma to explain the purpose of punctuation and how it affects meaning is valuable.

I’m Mark Pennington, English-language arts teacher and reading specialist. More to the point, I am the author of the comprehensive grades 4–high school Teaching Grammar and Mechanics programs and the Pennington Manual of Style, a useful reference and teaching tool. Click HERE for a complete list of the 22 comma rules with clear examples.

The Pennington Manual of Style

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

Teaching Grammar and Mechanics

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22 Comma Rules

When should you use a comma and when should not? It could be a life or death matter. After all, “Let’s eat Grandma” is considerably different than “Let’s eat, Grandma.” Sometimes these mechanics and grammar rules do serve a purpose.

Here’s the 22 comma rules from The Pennington Manual of Style to answer all of your comma questions. Want the whole manual including 22 comma rules, 22 capitalization rules, 22 other punctuation rules, 22 quotation marks, italics and underlines, and 22 Modern Language Association (MLA) citation formats? . The author (authority) of these mechanics rules is Mark Pennington, publisher of Teaching Essay Strategies designed to teach students the Common Core W.1 argumentative and W.2 informational explanatory essays with downloadable e-comments, and the newly released Grades 4-8 Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand), designed to help students catch up and keep up with grade-level Standards in grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary.

The Pennington Manual of Style: 22 Comma Rules 

1 Speaker Tag In dialogue sentences, place commas after a beginning speaker tag to the left of the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points can also separate speaker tags from dialogue. Example: He said, “I shouldn’t listen to what you say.”

2 Speaker Tag In dialogue sentences, place commas before and after a middle speaker tag to the left of both  quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points can also separate speaker tags from dialogue. Example: “But if you don’t,” he shouted “you will never win.”

3 Speaker Tag In dialogue sentences, place commas before an ending speaker tag to the left of the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points can also separate speaker tags from dialogue. Example: “Okay. I will give you another chance,” he responded.

4 Appositive Use commas to set apart appositives. An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to another noun or pronoun to identify, define, or describe it. The     appositive can be a word, phrase, or clause. Example: That man, the one with the hat, left town quickly.

5 Commas in Series Use commas after each item in lists (except the last). Use commas after each item in lists, except the last one. Example: John, Jane, and Jose left early.

6 Introductory Word Use commas only after introductory words which receive special emphasis. Examples: Conversely, you could listen. Then I went home.

7 Introductory Phrase Use commas after introductory phrases when followed by a modifying noun or pronoun. Example: Bold and beautiful, the statue was popular. Don’t use commas if the phrase modifies the following noun or pronoun or if another part of speech follows the phrase. Examples: A bold and beautiful statue was popular. Bold and beautiful was the popular statue.

* Exception: Avoid using commas after short (four words or less) introductory prepositional phrases. Examples: Under the tree he hid. Under the shady oak tree, he hid.

8 Introductory Dependent Clauses A dependent clause includes a noun or pronoun and connected verb, but does not express a complete thought. Place a comma following introductory dependent clauses. Examples: Even though I listened, I didn’t understand.

9 Ending Dependent Clause A dependent clause includes a noun or pronoun and connected verb, but does not express a complete thought. Don’t  place a comma before an ending dependent clause. Example: I never got her letter although she did write.

10 Geography Place commas between related geographical place names and after the last place name,  unless it appears the end of a sentence. When the place name is a possessive, this rule does not apply. Examples: She lived in Rome, Italy, for a year. Rome, Italy’s traffic is congested.

11 Dates Use commas to separate number dates and years. Don’t place a comma following the year. Example: It all happened on May 3, 1999. On May 4, 1999 we went back home.

12 Beginning Direct Address Use commas to separate nouns of direct address. The noun can be a word, phrase, or clause. If at the beginning of the sentence, one comma follows. Examples: Kristen, leave some for your sister. Officer Daniels, I need your help. Whoever you are, stop talking.

13 Middle Direct Address Use commas to separate nouns of direct address. The noun can be a word, phrase, or clause. If in the middle of the sentence, one comma goes before and one follows. Examples: If you insist, Dad, I will. If you insist, Your Honor, I will.

14 Ending Direct Address Use commas to separate nouns of direct address. The noun can be a word, phrase, or clause. If at the end of the sentence, one comma goes before the noun. Examples: Just leave a little bit, honey. Just leave a little bit, best girlfriend.

15 Compound Sentence Use commas before coordinating conjunctions to join two independent clauses if one or more of the sentences is long. Example: I liked her, and she definitely said that she liked me.

16 Commas to Enclose Parenthetical Expressions Use commas before and after words that interrupt the flow of the sentence. If the interruption is minimal, you may leave out the commas. Example: The best way to see the game, if you can afford it, is in person.

17 Commas to Set Off Non-restrictive Clauses A nonrestrictive clause can be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. The relative pronouns who, whom, whose, and which, but not that, begin nonrestrictive relative clauses. Use commas to set off nonrestrictive relative clauses from the noun or pronoun before the clause. Example: The girl, who sits in the corner, is sleepy.

18 Commas and Restrictive Clauses A restrictive clause can’t be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. A restrictive clause limits

22 Comma Rules with Examples

22 Comma Rules

the meaning of the independent clause to which it is attached. Don’t use commas before and after restrictive clauses. Example: The student who wins the most votes will be elected Student Council President.

19 Comma and Abbreviations These abbreviations: Sr. (senior), Jr. (junior), and etc. (et cetera) are always preceded by a comma. Don’t place commas after these abbreviations. Examples: Howard, Sr. had Howard, Jr., take out the trash, water the lawn, pull weeds, etc.

20 Comma and Duplicate Words Place commas between repeated words when needed to improve clarity. Examples: Tommy and Pam moved in, in May.

21 Comma to Replace Missing Words Use commas to replace omitted words, especially the word that. Examples: I am a vegetarian; my wife, a meat-eater. Win some, lose some. What I mean is, she hasn’t changed her diet and followed mine.

22 Comma in Parenthetical Citations Place a comma after each author’s name, except the last in a multiple author citation. Don’t use a comma between the author(s) and the page number(s). Example: (Peabody, Jones, and Smith 14) Don’t place a comma between different authors or resource titles citing information; use a semicolon. Examples: (Peabody 16; Jimenez 55) (The Nature of Change; Wrong Policy)

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