Not Life or Death

colored question markThis post is about grammar and punctuation so it is not life or death. But we had never heard the term “serial comma” before so we thought we’d share this tidbit. By the way, serial comma is what MSWord spell check suggests when a sentence has a series of items. Here is an explanation from

Question: What Is the Oxford (or Serial) Comma?

Answer: The Oxford comma is the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items:

  • This song is dedicated to Moe, Larry, and Curly.
  • This website is dedicated to Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, and Curly Joe.
  • This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and God.

The Oxford comma is so-called because it has traditionally been used by editors and printers at Oxford University Press. New Englanders may favor the term Harvard comma (the convention is also followed by Harvard University Press). Throughout the U.S. the mark is commonly called the serial comma .

When Should We Use the Oxford Comma?

Most U.S. style guides say, “Use it–always.” Garner’s American Usage (Oxford, 2009) makes the standard case for clarity:

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.

Likewise, The Chicago Manual of Style (2010) “strongly recommends” using the serial comma because “it prevents ambiguity”:

If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and:

  • The meal consisted of soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese.
  • John was working, Jean was resting, and Alan was running errands and furnishing food.

Most college writing handbooks in the U.S. also advocate use of the serial comma.

But not The Associated Press Stylebook (2010), which determines usage at most American newspapers:

Use commas to separate items in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

But the AP Stylebook (which is always looking for excuses to save space) does qualify this precept:

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.

Most British and Australian style guides also discourage use of the serial comma in simple lists, allowing it only “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”( Australian Government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers ).

Final Comments on the Oxford Comma

What is our advice? Unless you’re writing for an American newspaper, living in the U.K. or Australia, or leading a campaign against superfluous punctuation, use the serial comma–or the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma.

Hope this helps!



About Bob McCarthy

Originally from the Northeast, I now call Southwest Florida home. I have been a professional copywriter and editor since 1979, both freelance and in house. I have had article published in regional, national and international magazines. Plus, a video for which I wrote the script won an industry award as Best Training Video.
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