The Write Stuff March 2013 Volume 9 Issue 3

The Skinny on Serial/Oxford Commas

Grammar has a lot of gray areas, so it’s easy to get confused about what you should or shouldn’t do in certain situations. Serial or Oxford commas–which precede conjunctions (like “and”) before the last item in lists of at least three items–present one such conundrum.

Which of the following sentences is correctly punctuated?

  • The U.S. flag is red, white, and blue.
  • The U.S. flag is red, white and blue.

It’s a trick question…because both are correct; your choice depends on which style guide you follow. Most style guides (including the Chicago Manual of Style and Garner’s Modern American Usage) say to always use serial commas. The Associated Press Stylebook, however, which is followed by journalists, recommends not using a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.

As a trained journalist, I abide by AP Style (unless clients ask me not to), so you won’t see me using serial commas in sentences like, “My favorite cities to visit are Chicago, San Francisco and Boston.” However, I do agree with the AP Stylebook that more complex series’ do warrant serial commas.

For instance:

  • The non-profit organization provides education about salmon farming, economics and globalization, natural resources, and the environment.

Without the third comma that sentence would be hard to read, since it includes an “item”  that contains a conjunction (economics and globalization).

My advice regarding serial commas in simple series’ is to make a choice and be consistent. This is one of the things that should be noted in your company style guide, so employees and vendors can comply.

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Published On: May 25th, 2017 / Categories: 2013 /

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