What About That Last Comma

What About That Last Comma

I went shopping and bought cereal, milk and chocolate. My milk didn’t come with a bar of chocolate taped to it, but it might have and you’ll never know because we’ve lost our love of the serial comma. Also referred to as the “Oxford comma” the serial comma is the comma that comes before the final conjunction in a list. It is what keeps us from transgressing into absolute anarchy and we need to reclaim it. [1]

Clearly, I’m a supporter of the serial comma, but it is in fact a question of writing style and you need to choose a side. Why? Because consistency is important. Readers need to know what you mean when you do or don’t use the comma. If you never end a list of items with the last comma, they’ll know you never do it and understand not to combine the last two things. If you sometimes use it, sometimes not, people will be left making a judgement call – is there milk for sale with chocolate attached or not?  

It’s important to point out that there are quite a few publications that do not use the serial comma and I’ve read many the email that didn’t include it. That extra comma can at times seem pretentious and makes the writing seem stuffy and redundant. Not that I’m advocating for shorter sentences, but adding commas does also lengthen your emails. [2] However, where it makes up in page space, it doesn’t in clarity. Which is why most research and other academic publications use the serial comma in all cases.

I always use serial commas; the serial comma prevents confusion. [3] When I read a headline that says “Tonight only Live music, free drinks and food” I am going to get pretty annoyed if I get there and the drinks are free and not the food. Another example from Business insider “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” points out another potential miscommunication caused by the lack of a comma. Is the writer suggesting their parents are Ayn Rand and God? I hope not, otherwise I actually feel a bit sympathetic. [4]

Skipping the comma can save you on space, which is why some publications and companies have chosen to drop it like it’s hot, but there are plenty of arguments for keeping it. Whichever side you fall on, just be consistent and ensure your readers understand as well.

[1] https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/serial-comma
[2] https://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/the-oxford-comma-use-it-or-ditch-it
[3] https://www.copypress.com/blog/5-reasons-use-oxford-comma-content/
[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/always-use-the-oxford-comma-2015-5

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