Editors and writers vote for the serial comma
Let’s talk about using the serial comma, which is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma. This is one of the most controversial punctuation marks. A number of authorities cite that you should use the serial comma to prevent ambiguity in a sentence where the last element in a list of items consists of a pair that is joined by a conjunction such as and or or.
The BC branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada conducted a poll in 2008 to determine the percentage of members who were for or against using the serial comma. The results revealed that out of 134 votes, 84.3% approved of its use.
An extensive list of reference materials and writers’ organizations support using the serial comma. The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors and Publishers are just a few. The BC branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada call themselves “A proud supporter of the serial comma.”
My findings show that aside from newspapers and magazines, whose publishers omit it to save space, the serial comma is used by the majority of writers and editors.
Common use of the serial comma
The argument in favour of the serial comma is that it prevents ambiguity. The following sentence demonstrates one example from an article found on Wikipedia:
In reference to a documentary about Merle Haggard, it was noted that “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were the wives. I see the point, however, I highly doubt there being any confusion in this particular example.
This sentence could be rewritten like this: “Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives.
Now it reads as if Robert Duvall and two of Robert Duvall’s ex-wives were interviewed. Good Lord!
A serial comma removes the possibility of confusion in this version: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.” You can’t argue with that one, can you?
Editing with the serial comma
I choose to avoid using the serial comma when possible. While editing for a client, I would be attentive to their preference or draw their attention to its use to avoid confusion.
After seeing many examples, it’s easy to see why the serial comma is preferred by the majority of writers. However, in these two sentences, it’s not necessary:
The American flag is red, white and blue.
The meal consisted of bread, soup and salad.
I set out to rally against the serial comma by writing this blog post. Instead, I have convinced myself otherwise after playing around with another example:
“I enjoy having coffee, bacon and eggs and toast for breakfast.”
The reader might wonder if the eggs are with the bacon or the toast. If I were reading this I would assume that all items are separate.
You might write, “I enjoy having coffee, bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast.”
This still leaves the question of whether the eggs and toast are with each other, or separate. Are the eggs on the toast? Do you care?
You could insert a comma after eggs in both examples or rewrite this sentence so the meaning is obvious. If you are like me, you might try to write this sentence so the serial comma is not needed. Can you?
How might you write this to avoid using the serial comma without misconstruing your message?
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