Using the Serial Comma: A Matter of Style

10:54 am , March 14, 2012 0

I am a fan of the serial (Oxford) comma because it clearly distinguishes the difference between the first object, the second object, and the third object. I am not alone in my preference; Chicago and The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation strongly recommend use of the serial comma.

The Associated Press and newspaper publications, such as The New York Times, traditionally have omitted the serial comma in a series in which a meaning is clear: tigers, lions and bears. However, the serial comma is included when a sentence can be confusing or the meaning would be altered without it: The architect, builder and designer decided to move forward with the construction plans. There is a possibility that someone would think the architect is also the builder and designer, therefore, adding a serial comma after builder would clearly distinguish that the series includes three people.

So what’s the final ruling on using the serial comma? Include it when clarity dictates such usage. However, consistent application of the serial comma would help writers to err on the safe side.

Notes:

1. University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 312.

2. Jane Straus, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 54.

3. Perlman, Merrill. “Talk to the Newsroom: Director of Copy Desks Merrill Perlman.” The New York Times. Last modified March 6, 2007. Accessed January 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/06/business/media/19asktheeditors.html.

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