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Bacon and eggs, and the serial comma

by Davina on February 6, 2011

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?

Photo Credit: Onecog2many

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{ 21 comments }

Hilary February 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

Hiya .. would love the bacon and eggs, with toast and coffee, and a side of chipolata sausages, gherkin, tomatoes .. and the full works – then the day off .. to have a good sleep.

I never understood grammar – it all came up at the same time as French, Latin .. and I just never grasped it – I guess something went in .. but I really do not know how?!

Bacon and eggs would be very good .. don’t have it often enough .. now it’s making me hungry .. another cup of tea due I think .. cheers Hilary
Hilary´s last blog post ..February Creative that unusual month

Mike February 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

Not a fan of eggs particularly, except scrambled, egg sandwich, egg salad sandwich, etc.

I do prefer using the “serial” comma, though, sometimes, I leave it out.

I guess I used to understand grammar. Now, though, it’s just internalized. I write how it seems right to write — and generally it works out all write… all right… alright. ;)
Mike´s last blog post ..Low solar activity–today’s quiet sun image

Jasmine February 7, 2011 at 11:10 am

The serial comma should be banned! It drives me nuts. And, until I read your post, I always thought of it as a punctuation error. I am particular on punctuation. I don’t know why the comma irks me, it just does. And I am not saying that I am an expert by any means! I just have my personal preferences. : )

Vered | Blogger for Hire February 7, 2011 at 1:20 pm

I would choose this version: “I enjoy having coffee, bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast.” It’s clear and non-confusing… I don’t really care if the eggs are ON the toast or not! :)
Vered | Blogger for Hire´s last blog post ..What Are Your Best Childhood Food Memories

Patty - Why Not Start Now? February 7, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Only you could write a fascinating post about the serial comma, Davina. I remember when the rule (according to APA format) changed. I was in grad school then and gearing up to write my thesis, so serial comma here I come. I’ve never looked back. Such a rule-bound gal, apparently, at least where my commas are concerned. But those little sentences look sad and abandoned to me, sans serial comma. I can’t help worrying about the forlorn commas that are left, pining for their sibling who was unceremoniously ripped away!
Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog post ..Isadora Duncan Wannabe Syndrome And Scarves

Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes February 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Not a fan of bacon and eggs, myself. I’ve always been partial to Mexican breakfasts, but that just might be because the first time I ever had a traditional “American breakfast,” I was in grade school.

My teachers in grade school would mark me wrong if I used the serial comma, saying it was completely not necessary and I shouldn’t use it at all. However, a few minutes before that happened, they were teaching that commas separated individual items in a list.

I always ignored them and used my beloved commas anyway. If it separates individual things, I use the comma. If it’s a pair of things that go together, like coffee and cream, I don’t. And I don’t care how many marks wrong I get! =)

Delena
Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes´s last blog post ..iContact Coupon Code

Chris Edgar February 8, 2011 at 12:36 am

I’ll bet a pickle shaped like a comma is kind of like a Virgin Mary appearance for you editor types. I’m sorry, that’s not very ecumenical. In more generic spiritual terms, we could call it the Writing Spirit or Muse having a picklish experience. Okay, I’m going to stop before this becomes even more offensive.

Davina February 8, 2011 at 10:00 am

Hi Hilary,
That would be a nice way to start a day off… savoring a yummy bacon and egg breakfast *and* a side of chipolata sausage :) The use of the punctuation such as the comma is pretty controversial among writers and even then, if a writer has a certain style, that’s not always what their clients prefer. I’ve learned in the world of publishing and advertising that the rules are meant to be broken.

LOL, Mike.
Right! :-) I think that’s the case with a lot of folk. They write how it seems right and that’s fine. A lot of it is internalized and I think with the Internet folk see a wide range of writing styles. They become accepted because the blogger or writer themselves are enjoyed. It goes beyond the rules it seems.

Hi Jasmine.
Some writers are comma happy :-) I prefer less as you do and especially in the simple sentences. The word “and” serves the purpose without needing the serial comma.

Hi Vered.
Simple and to the point. And, no serial comma. I like it!

Hi Patty.
LOL. I’m *trying* to make it interesting :) There’s a certain amount of pride and confidence that comes from knowing the rules and upholding them. Then, when you do break them you *know* you are breaking them. I love the last sentence of your comment :) An ode to the serial comma…

Hi Delana.
LOL, you’ve made your decision and that’s it! :) That’s funny how some teachers enforce it and some don’t. I can see how that would have been confusing for you in grade school, especially when you were learning how to use commas — one of the hazards of a teacher who’s assuming their students are understanding at their level.

Hi Chris.
Well, I figured, as I was writing this post and playing around with different sentences, that I was in a pickle over the serial comma :-) And not only that, I was lucky enough to find this pic. Who’d have thunk?

Wendi Kelly-Life's Little Inspirations,Blue Sun Media February 9, 2011 at 8:43 am

Cadence and clarity are all that matter and damn the rules! It has to have the proper meaning and it has to SOUND right. Words and stories need to have the right lyrical tone and commas need to remember that their purpose in life is to pause and explain. Not to amuse or befuddle editors and teachers with red pens.

Those persnickety commas, I say take artistic license and put them in on a need to have basis! :)
Wendi Kelly-Life’s Little Inspirations,Blue Sun Media´s last blog post ..How to be a Gardener of your own Life

Sara February 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Davina,

I love the name “serial” comma. I’m sorry, but maybe I read too many mysteries because all I could see was a comma “serial killer,” Given the comments above, I think some people might consider this possibilit:~)

I grew up using the serial comma and still am inclined to use it when I’ve got multiple items listed.I might not use with the example, “The flag’s colors are red, white and blue.” I might use it with the example, “I had coffee, bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast.”

To reword the sentence, I might say “I had coffee, bacon and eggs with toast for breakfast.”

I loved the picture:~)
Sara´s last blog post ..Story Photo- News Headline

patricia February 9, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I am still worried about the two ex-wives named Kris and Robert.

I think if I write professionally again, I will need to hire an editor, because I like my free style without all the lines, requirements, and rules. I am an ideas person and a creative problem solver, who has given tons of time and energy to getting things resolved. I just want to be the brains not so much the worker bee or the meat and potatoes.

Could it have been Kristi and Roberta?
patricia´s last blog post ..Memorize This

Davina February 10, 2011 at 10:03 am

Hi Wendi,
It has to SOUND right! I agree. The whole comma issue has become too exaggerated, hence the pic of the pickle :-) I love the way you think… take artistic licence. These days we’re writing more like we talk with so much communication happening online. Things are changing.

Hi Sara.
Yep, you’re right. I made a joke to a colleague of mine to the effect of being a “serial killer” of the serial comma. I like how you’ve reworded the sentence. That is the one that I’d decided upon after toying with them all. I couldn’t believe how many ways there were to say this. But to make it as clear as possible I came to the conclusion that in this case the serial comma was the better way to go.

Hi Patricia.
LOL… Hahaha, you made me laugh out loud :) How about Christine and Roberta? Would that ease your mind? :) Oh, I just read your last line… we are on the same wavelength.

I think it’s great to have another set of eyes when you’re writing. Two heads are better than one. And when you are too close to what you’re writing it’s more difficult to see it any other way.

Linda February 12, 2011 at 9:25 am

Hi Davina,

I love the serial comma picture, and agree with Sara about the serial killer idea. Too much TV? Anyway, I learned the correct writing, grammar and punctuation in school, along with the rules. I tend to forget some of the rules, but usually the end result is correct. Just for the record, is a comma before “but” in the last sentence necessary?

Mostly I write with punctuation and then go back and edit. I find sometimes I’ve used too many commas, and others not enough. In other words, I try to use commas to make my sentences clear. That was funny about Merle Haggard’s ex-wives.
Linda´s last blog post ..The Power of Love

Davina February 14, 2011 at 8:36 am

LOL, Linda.
Yes the serial comma comment was pretty funny. It definitely fits in relation to the serial comma :) Regarding your question about using a comma before “but,” I would have to see an example, but this sentence is a pretty good one… LOL. Note how the first instance has a comma after and the second instance has a comma before. Here the comma is showing the pause, as opposed to how the serial comma prevents ambiguity.

I do the same as you — I just write whatever and then go back and edit. I tend to throw in a lot of commas while I’m writing and a lot of them come out later. I remember learning grammar in school — it wasn’t one of my favourite parts of English. It was more difficult to relate to when you had to apply it to study examples, as opposed to now, when I’m applying it to my own writing, or a client’s writing.

Delena Silverfox@Coupon Codes February 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Hi Davina,

LOL Precisely! When it comes to teachers conflicting in what they teach, instead of learning to simply do what we’re told to get the good grade (which always felt wrong to me), I did it my way and vowed to become a teacher to show them how it was done! =)

Take care,
Delena
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Davina February 16, 2011 at 9:17 am

Hahaha… good for you!

You’d make an excellent teacher.

steven papas February 18, 2011 at 6:30 am

you know, there was that ancient greek oracle (Delphi) which would tell you evasive quotes about what was about to come, by letting you put the commas. With this captation the oracle was always right, whatever the drift of the events was.
steven papas´s last blog post ..Garmin GPS 60CSx Handheld GPS Navigator Review

Julie Walraven | Resume Services February 19, 2011 at 10:20 am

To me the serial comma makes things more readable and I like it. I’m old enough to have learned English with it and so going with out the comma seems odd. I enjoy having the commas in my writing and in resumes, it becomes almost more critical to have total clarity. Thanks for making me think!
Julie Walraven | Resume Services´s last blog post ..What’s wrong with “Duties” in your resume or LinkedIn Profile

Davina February 19, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Hi Stephen.
This is interesting… I googled Delphi and found an example of what you’re talking about. Thanks… it’s a good illustration of how the comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

“You will go you will return not in the battle you will perish” was an example of this duality of meaning. The sentence can be interpreted two different ways depending where the comma can be placed. If a comma is placed after the word “not” the message is discouraging for him who is about to depart for war. If on the other hand the comma is placed before the word “not”, then the warrior is to return alive.

Hi Julie.
You’re welcome. :) When you’re writing resumes you *can’t* be too careful!

Barbara Swafford March 2, 2011 at 12:23 am

Hi Davina,

I normally don’t use the serial (or is the cereal?) comma. If a sentence would be confusing, I try to rewrite it. That said, I have a tendency to use more commas than I think is necessary, but I don’t want my sentences to make a reader breathless, either.

My rewrite would be. “Bacon, eggs, coffee and a side of toast is what I enjoy having for breakfast.”

Fun assignment, Teach! :)
Barbara Swafford´s last blog post ..Bloggers Are Going Naked

Davina March 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Hi Barbara.
LOL, it’s interesting to notice varied comma use of different writers. In a way, it’s our trademark you know… just as our style of speaking is, with regards to gestures, tone of voice, favourite phrases, etc. Before writing this article, I preferred to not use the serial comma for my own writing, but since writing this post I’ve noticed it is sneaking into more of my sentences. If I were editing for a client I’d follow the style for whatever their preference is.

Good job on the assignment :) I’d give you an A.

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