What Are Serial Commas? Do We Need Them?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

serial comma
The Three Stooges: Moe, Larry, and Curly (with a serial comma in front of and). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In English punctuation, the serial comma is the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a series: faith, hope, and charity. Also called the Oxford comma and the Harvard comma.

Note that a serial comma is generally not used when only two parallel items are connected by a conjunction: faith and charity.

Though the AP Stylebook is a notable exception, most American style guides recommend using the serial comma for the sake of clarity and consistency.

In contrast, most British style guides discourage use of the serial comma unless the items in the series would be confusing without it.

As Miller and Taylor say in The Punctuation Handbook (1989), "Nothing is gained by omitting the final comma in a list, while clarity can be lost in some cases through misreading."

Examples and Observations

  • "Most book and academic editors, using style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style, will publish sentences like this: The candidate promised lower taxes, higher spending, and universal happiness. Most newspapers would print the sentence like this: The candidate promised lower taxes, higher spending and universal happiness. Note that there's no comma before the 'and.' ...

    "There are a few cases, however, where we have to make an exception for clarity. For example: The candidate promised lower taxes, higher spending, and ice cream and cake. Without a comma after 'spending,' the sentence would be a jumble."
    (Philip B. Corbett, "Talk to the Newsroom." The New York Times, October 29, 2007)
     
  • Avoiding Ambiguity
    The first sentence below doesn't need a comma after "short films." The second sentence, however, would clearly benefit from a comma after the phrase "three female couriers in London."
    "After a decade in London, the Bicycle Film Festival rolls back to our screens for another incredible line-up of features, short films and documentaries. Highlights include the ever-popular Urban Bike Shorts, featuring stories about amputee brothers chasing their BMX dreams, three female couriers in London and a postman in Afghanistan."
    (Website of The Cycling Solicitors, October 2013)
     
  • Reasons to Use the Serial Comma
    "Most newspapers and many other publications don't employ this serial comma, but in more formal writing, such as essays, business letters, and literary works (like this highbrow book), the serial comma is ordinarily retained. We recommend the use of the serial comma because we have found that in many sentences the comma before the conjunction is an aid to clarity, emphasis, and meaning. Consider:
    At summer camp I missed my dog, my little brother, the odor of my dad's pipe and my boyfriend. [This sentence misspeaks for itself.]"
    (Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2005)
     
  • Associated Press Style and the Serial Comma
    "[T]he Associated Press Stylebook ... may have unwittingly contributed to the confusion by saying it's OK to omit the serial comma in a simple list: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. But AP style also demands the serial comma when the series is complex, or when the last two items run together ambiguously, or when an item in the list contains a conjunction. Examples:
    The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper attitude.

    I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
    "The gist of the AP guideline is that we should retain the serial comma in all but the simplest and shortest list, and it does not say that the serial comma is wrong in any case. But that's not the way the guideline has been assimilated. Instead, some writers have concluded — entirely without support — that the serial comma is wrong and should be deleted. But it's not wrong, and no accepted authority would say that it is."
    (Paula LaRocque, The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well. Marion Street Press, 2003)
     
  • Serial Commas at The New Yorker
    "At the New Yorker, one of the first style rules [Harold] Ross established was the serial comma — that is, 'red, white, and blue' instead of 'red, white and blue.' Here he was following his friend Franklin P. Adams, himself a notorious stickler, and Fowler, who argued that since omitting the serial comma sometimes led to confusion as to whether the last two elements in the series are to be taken separately or together, it should always be used. The usage was occasionally objected to as extraneous and stilted, but Ross held firm. 'The serial comma is important because it is almost exclusively the New Yorker's, and is a mildly controversial thing,' he once wrote to Fleischmann. 'But we're right, and all the rest are wrong.'"
    (Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. Simon and Schuster, 2000)
     
  • In Defense of the Serial Comma (2015)
    "[T]here's a solid semantic reason why the [serial] comma should be there. It reinforces the parallelism between all the items in a list. If we omit it, that sense of connectivity is lost . . .. [Because some people] can't see any semantic reason for it, they begin to use it inconsistently, allowing such random factors as the length of the words in the list or their sense of timing to influence whether they add one or not. . . .

    "With the serial comma, for every one case of possible ambiguity, there are 99 where there's no ambiguity at all, and we are faced with a straight pragmatic choice. As Ernest Gowers says:
    The correct use of the comma—if there is such a thing as 'correct' use—can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste.
    And, I would add, a linguistic perspective."
    (David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2015)
     
  • In Defense of the Serial Comma (1894)
    "The necessity of using the comma after the next to the last of three or more adjectives in succession, when the last two are connected by a conjunction, was pointed out by E. Lincoln Kellogg in the July Writer. An excellent illustration of the rule is afforded by the following sentence, which I came across in a story yesterday: 'He was a noble fellow—wonderfully versatile, brave, and generous to a fault.' If you omit the comma after 'brave,' you say that the hero in question was brave to a fault, which is not what the author meant.

    "Again, take this sentence: 'For dinner he had lobster and vinegar, and cherries, and terrapin, and bread and milk.' All the commas used are absolutely essential, to give an accurate idea of the tempting repast. It will be observed that the use of 'and' does not make the commas unnecessary, a sufficient answer to the assertion sometimes made that the comma after the second adjective in a group of three of which the last two are connected by 'and' is unnecessary because the 'and' takes the place of it."
    (William H. Hills, The Writer, September 1894)

    See Examples and Observations below. Also see: