In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms. For example, a list of three countries might be punctuated either as "France, Italy, and Spain" (with the serial comma), or as "France, Italy and Spain" (without the serial comma).
Opinions among writers and editors differ on whether to use the serial comma. In American English, a majority of style guides mandate use of the serial comma, including APA style, The Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Manual, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual. In contrast, the Associated Press Stylebook and the stylebook published by The Canadian Press for journalistic writing advise against it. It is used less often in British English, but some British style guides require it, including The Oxford Style Manual. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, "Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence ... Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item ... This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press." Some use it only where necessary to avoid ambiguity, in contrast to such guides as Garner's Modern American Usage, which advocate its routine use to avoid ambiguity.
- 1 Arguments for and against
- 2 Ambiguity
- 3 Usage
- 4 Individual disputes
- 5 Recommendations by style guides
- 6 Other languages
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Arguments for and against
Common arguments for consistent use of the serial comma:
- Use of the comma is consistent with conventional practice.
- It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better.
- It can resolve ambiguity (see examples below).
- Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list (for example, when semicolons are used to separate items, a semicolon is consistently included before the last item even when and or or is present).
- Its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists.
Common arguments against consistent use of the serial comma:
- Use of the comma is inconsistent with conventional practice.
- The comma may introduce ambiguity (see examples below).
- It is redundant in a simple list because the and or the or is often meant to serve (by itself) to mark the logical separation between the final two items, unless the final two items are not truly separate items but are two parts of a compound single item.
- Where space is at a premium, the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text.
Many sources are against both systematic use and systematic avoidance of the serial comma, making recommendations in a more nuanced way (see Usage and subsequent sections).
- To my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope.
There is ambiguity about the writer's parentage, because "Mother Teresa and the Pope" can be read as in apposition to my parents, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Mother Teresa and the Pope are the parents. A comma before and removes the ambiguity:
- To my parents, Mother Teresa, and the Pope.
But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as by changing the word order or by using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them (though the emphasis may thereby be changed):
- To the Pope, Mother Teresa and my parents.
An example collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:
- Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
A serial comma following "Kris Kristofferson" would help prevent this being understood as Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall being the ex-wives in question.
- My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast.
It is unclear whether the eggs are being grouped with the bacon or the toast. Adding a serial comma removes this ambiguity.
Writers who normally avoid the serial comma often use one in these circumstances, though sometimes re-ordering the elements of such a list can help as well.
In some circumstances using the serial comma can create ambiguity. If the book dedication above is changed to
- To my mother, Mother Teresa, and the Pope
the serial comma after Mother Teresa creates ambiguity about the writer's mother because it uses punctuation identical to that used for an appositive phrase, leaving it unclear whether this is a list of three entities (1, my mother; 2, Mother Teresa; and 3, the Pope) or of only two entities (1, my mother, who is Mother Teresa; and 2, the Pope). Without a serial comma, the above dedication would read: To my mother, Mother Teresa and the Pope, a phrase ambiguous only if the reader accepts the interpretation my mother, who is both Mother Teresa and the Pope.
The Times once published an unintentionally humorous description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, noting that "highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector". This would still be ambiguous if a serial comma were added, as Mandela could then be mistaken for a demigod, although he would be precluded from being a dildo collector.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.
This is ambiguous because it is unclear whether "a maid" is an appositive describing Betty, or the second in a list of three people. On the other hand, removing the final comma:
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.
leaves the possibility that Betty is both a maid and a cook (with "a maid and a cook" read as a unit, in apposition to Betty). So in this case neither the serial-comma style nor the no-serial-comma style resolves the ambiguity. A writer who intends a list of three distinct people (Betty, maid, cook) may create an ambiguous sentence, regardless of whether the serial comma is adopted. Furthermore, if the reader is unaware of which convention is being used, both versions are always ambiguous.
These forms (among others) would remove the ambiguity:
- 1 person
- They went to Oregon with Betty, who was a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, both a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, their maid and cook.
- 2 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty (a maid) and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty—a maid—and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and with a cook.
- They went to Oregon with the maid Betty and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a cook and Betty, a maid.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid; and a cook.
- 3 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty, as well as a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty and a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, one maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a maid, a cook, and Betty.
- They went with Betty to Oregon with a maid and a cook.
- The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if both y and y and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
- x and y and z is unambiguous if x and y and y and z cannot both be grouped.
In her style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss writes: "There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."
Journalists typically do not use the serial comma, possibly for economy of space. Journalistic style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against its use (see below).
The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and the United States Government Printing Office require the use of the serial comma. In Britain some authorities oppose its use, although others (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler's Modern English Usage) do recommend it.
In Australia, Canada, and South Africa, the serial comma tends not to be used in non-academic publications unless its absence produces ambiguity. The Australian Government Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (6th edition, 2002) recommends against it, except "to ensure clarity" (p. 102).
Maine Labor Dispute
In a US court case in 2017, the court was required to interpret a rule that "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of certain goods were activities not eligible for overtime pay; the question was whether this list included distribution of the goods, or only packing of the goods for distribution. The omission of the serial comma suggested one meaning, while the omission of the conjunction or before "packing" and the fact that the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual advised against use of the serial comma suggested another. The court decided that the sentence was ambiguous and "because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state's wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose" adopted the drivers' narrower reading of the exemption and ruled that those who distributed the goods were entitled to overtime. Thus, in this instance, it is implied that the fault lies in the absence of a serial comma; U.S. appeals judge David J. Barron wrote, "For want of a comma, we have this case."
Recommendations by style guides
Mainly American style guides supporting mandatory use
- The United States Government Printing Office's Style Manual
- "After each member within a series of three or more words, phrases, letters, or figures used with and, or, or nor." It notes that an age ("70 years 11 months 6 days") is not a series and should not take commas.
- Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage: A Guide (Random House, 1981), pp. 397–401
- "What, then, are the arguments for omitting the last comma? Only one is cogent – the saving of space. In the narrow width of a newspaper column this saving counts for more than elsewhere, which is why the omission is so nearly universal in journalism. But here or anywhere one must question whether the advantage outweighs the confusion caused by the omission. ... The recommendation here is that [writers] use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at a negligible cost."
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2010), paragraph 6.18
- "When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma ... should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage." In answer to a reader's query, however, The Chicago Manual of Style Online qualifies this, saying "the serial comma is optional; some mainstream style guides (such as the Associated Press) don’t use it. ... there are times when using the comma (or omitting it) results in ambiguity, which is why it’s best to stay flexible."
- The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 4th edition 1999), Rule 2
- "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last."
- The American Medical Association Manual of Style, 9th edition (1998) Chapter 6.2.1
- "Use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last term in a series."
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition (2010) Chapter 4.03
- "Use a comma between elements (including before and and or) in a series of three or more items."
- The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (Council of Science Editors, 7th edition, 2006), Section 188.8.131.52
- "To separate the elements (words, phrases, clauses) of a simple series of more than 2 elements, including a comma before the closing “and” or “or” (the so-called serial comma). Routine use of the serial comma helps to prevent ambiguity."
- Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th edition (Oxford University Press, 2016), "Punctuation," § D, "Comma", p. 748
- "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—e.g.: "A and B, C and D, E and F[,] and G and H"."
- MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Modern Language Association 2008), paragraph 3.4.2.b
- "Use commas to separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series."
- AAMT Book of Style for Medical Transcription
- "Medical transcriptionists use the serial comma when two medications or diagnoses must be seen as separate; i.e., for "The patient was on Aspirin, Coversyl, and Dilaudid", the comma is used before "and" to avoid the reader erroneously thinking that Coversyl and Dilaudid must be taken together."
Mainly British style guides supporting mandatory use
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002
- "For a century it has been part of OUP style to retain or impose this last serial (or series) comma consistently, ... but it is commonly used by many other publishers both here and abroad, and forms a routine part of style in US and Canadian English. ... Given that the final comma is sometimes necessary to prevent ambiguity, it is logical to impose it uniformly, so as to obviate the need to pause and gauge each enumeration on the likelihood of its being misunderstood – especially since that likelihood is often more obvious to the reader than the writer."
- MHRA Style Guide (Modern Humanities Research Association), 3rd edition (2013)
- "In an enumeration of three or more items, the practice in MHRA journals is to insert commas after all but the last item, to give equal weight to each enumerated element. ... The conjunctions and and or without a preceding comma are understood as linking the parts of a single enumerated element"
Mainly British style guides opposing mandatory use
- The Times style manual
- "Avoid the so-called Oxford comma; say "he ate bread, butter and jam" rather than "he ate bread, butter, and jam"."
- The Economist Style Guide
- "Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus "The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.""
- The Guardian Style Guide
- "A comma before the final "and" in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea)."
- MHRA Style Guide (Modern Humanities Research Association), 3rd edition (2013), paragraph 5.1
- "The comma after the penultimate item may be omitted in books published by the MHRA, as long as the sense is clear."
- The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
- "In British practice there's an Oxford/Cambridge divide ... In Canada and Australia the serial comma is recommended only to prevent ambiguity or misreading."
- University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate Writing and Style Guide
- "Note that there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and 'and'/'or' – this is sometimes referred to as the 'Oxford comma'. However, it is essential to use an Oxford comma if required to prevent ambiguity."
Mainly American style guides opposing mandatory use
- The New York Times stylebook
- "In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series."
- The AP Stylebook
- "Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series. [...] Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude. In the United States, the choice is between journalistic style (no serial comma) and "literary" style (with serial comma); consistent use of the serial comma is usually recommended for college writing."
Australian style guides opposing mandatory use
- The Australian Government Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers
- "A comma is used before and, or, or etc. in a list when its omission might either give rise to ambiguity or cause the last word or phrase to be construed with a preposition in the preceding phrase. ... Generally, however, a comma is not used before and, or or etc. in a list."
In the following languages, the serial comma is not the norm and may go against punctuation rules:
- Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian / Montenegrin (though it can be allowed for the purpose of emphasis).
- Hungarian (unless it is used with a conjunction other than "és", "s", "meg", or "vagy")
- Polish (unless conjunction is repeated in enumeration)
- Romanian (unless it is used as an adversative conjunction)
- Syndeton, the conjunctive phrasing that may or may not contain a serial comma
- Bryan A. Garner (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 748. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
- The terms Oxford comma and Harvard comma come from Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press, where serial-comma use is the house style.
- Sometimes, the term also denotes the comma that might come before etc. at the end of a list (see the Australian Government Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors, and Printers, below). Such an extension is reasonable, since etc. is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase et cetera (lit. and other things).
- The serial comma sometimes refers to any of the separator commas in a list, but this is a rare, old-fashioned usage. Herein, the term is used only as defined above.
- David Becker. "Using Serial Commas". APA. Retrieved October 14, 2014.
- Strunk, Jr., William; White, E. B. (2005). The Elements of Style. Illustrated by Maira Kalman (Illustrated ed.). Penguin Press. p. 3. ISBN 9781594200694. Retrieved February 15, 2013.
In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
- Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 84. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002: "The presence or lack of a comma before and or or ... has become the subject of much spirited debate. For a century it has been part of OUP style ..., to the extent that the convention has come to be called the 'Oxford comma'. But it is commonly used by many other publishers here and abroad, and forms a routine part of style in US and Canadian English" (p. 121).
- McArthur, Tom, "Comma." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. 1998. Encyclopedia.com.
- The Economist Style Guide (10th ed.). Profile Books. 2012. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-1-84668-606-1.
- Garner, Bryan A. (2009). Garner's Modern American Usage (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 676. ISBN 978-0-19-538275-4.
... omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will ...
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002: "But it is commonly used by many other publishers here and abroad, and forms a routine part of style in US and Canadian English" (p. 121).
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002; from discussion of the serial comma: "If the last item in a list has emphasis equal to the previous ones, it needs a comma to create a pause of equal weight to those that came before" (p. 121). The University of Oxford itself is quite distinct from Oxford University Press, and gives different advice. See University of Oxford Writing and Style Guide, below in this article.
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002; from discussion of the serial comma: "The last comma serves also to resolve ambiguity, particularly when any of the items are compound terms joined by a conjunction" (p. 122).
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002; in discussion of the semicolon, examples are given in which complex listed items are separated by semicolons, with the same structure and on the same principles as are consistently recommended for use of the comma as a list separator in the preceding section (pp. 124–5)
- "Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 4th Ed.", 2003; This punctuation style, however, does have a drawback: It may imply a closer connection than actually exists between the last two elements of the series (p. 89)
- Ridout, R., and Witting, C., The Facts of English, Pan, 1973, p. 79: "Usually in such lists 'and' is not preceded by a comma, [...]".
- Implicit in the treatment given in The Australian Government Publishing Service's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th edition, Wiley, 2002, on p. 102. The exception discussed (see Usage, below) makes sense only on the assumption of this argument.
- Based on example quoted in Victor, Daniel (March 16, 2017). "Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute". New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2017.
- "Making Light". Nielsenhayden.com. October 21, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2013.
- "The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars". Retrieved 2015-05-18.
- Lynne Truss (2004). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Gotham. ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
- Bryan A. Garner (2003). Garner's Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 654. ISBN 0-19-516191-2.
- Volokh, Eugene (March 15, 2017). "'A, B or C' vs. 'A, B, or C' – the serial comma and the law". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 19, 2017.
- Clauss, Kyle Scott (March 15, 2017). "Oxford Comma Decides Court Case in Maine Labor Dispute". Boston Magazine.
- Victor, Daniel (March 16, 2017). "Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute". New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2017.
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- The AAMT Book of Style for Medical Transcription, Claudia Tessier, ISBN 0-935229-22-1, Modesto, California, USA. Page 309.
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002, section 5.3, pp. 121–122
- MHRA Style Guide: a handbook for authors, editors, and writers of theses (3rd ed.). London: Modern Humanities Research Association. 2013. pp. 33–4. ISBN 978-1-78188-009-8.
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It's just a matter of STYLE, and in this case, newspaper or literary (book) style. . . . Choose one style or the other the authorities say, but be consistent. Most writers recommend the literary style in college writing to avoid possible confusion . . .
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