The Serial or Oxford Comma: When, Where and Why or When, Where, and Why?
A serial comma is the comma that appears immediately after the penultimate item in a series or list when a conjunction separates that item from the last item. The heading above provides an example, with the comma after ‘Where’ being a serial or series comma. As a general rule, neither using nor not using the serial comma is incorrect in written English, but the presence of this piece of punctuation in a scholarly document often depends upon the guidelines provided by a journal or publisher. It is therefore essential when you are submitting a manuscript for publication to check the relevant author instructions, adopt the preference indicated there and apply it consistently throughout your document.
The serial comma tends to be used particularly in American English and by US publishers, but it is also used by Oxford University Press (hence its alternative name ‘Oxford comma’) and some other UK publishers, so using British or American English does not necessarily help you decide whether you should use the serial comma or not. A personal preference for minimal punctuation would incline an author to eliminate the serial comma, whereas the extensive employment of in-text lists including compound items that use conjunctions might demand the addition of serial commas to ensure clarity of communication. Consistent usage is the key to a professional text and can also enhance the comprehension of readers.
Even if you choose not to use the serial comma in a document you are writing, there may be instances in which you will need to add the comma to avoid ambiguity or confusion, with compound items in a series presenting particular challenges. Some compound items will not present a problem: in ‘She bought milk, juice and tea and coffee,’ for instance, no serial comma is needed for the author’s meaning to be clearly communicated. However, when a compound item joined by a conjunction appears before the main conjunction in a list, using a comma before that main conjunction can be helpful and even necessary: in ‘They brought root beer, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and cookies,’ for example, the serial comma is necessary before the final ‘and’ to avoid the implication that the cookies, too, were vanilla and chocolate. If, on the other hand, the author intended to suggest that they were, the sentence would be better as ‘They brought root beer and vanilla and chocolate ice cream and cookies.’
In some series, the lack of a serial comma may suggest an appositional relationship where none is intended. ‘I love my grandparents, Lightning McQueen and Sally Carrera’ without a serial comma can imply that the names Lightning McQueen and Sally Carrera are in apposition with ‘grandparents,’ indicating that the cartoon characters Lightning and Sally are the grandparents of the speaker. Adding a serial comma clarifies the meaning of the sentence: ‘I love my grandparents, Lightning McQueen, and Sally Carrera.’ Using a serial comma to clarify a potentially confusing series is not inconsistent with a general pattern of not using the serial comma, and an author’s primary concern should always be clear communication.
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