Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 55: Comma Chameleon

In today's Grammar Grater, we're talking about if and when to use the serial comma. It's also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma, but those are just fancy terms for a comma used in a series or a list.

Many style guides and grammarians have taken sides on whether or not a comma should follow the penultimate item in a list before the conjunctions "and" or "or."

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say to use a comma before the conjunction in a series, as in:
We have the option of seeing a drama, a comedy, or a thriller.
The Associated Press Stylebook, however, begs to differ. It recommends that you do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series:
My favorite breeds of dogs are Jack Russell terriers, Welsh corgis and golden retrievers.
But as Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, says, "there are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken."

Truss thinks of punctuation marks as being like the traffic signals of language, telling our eyes when to slow down, take a detour or stop when reading a sentence. In her view, the use of punctuation is less about following specific rules and more about making sure your readers understand the point you're trying to get across.

We're not about to take sides here at Grammar Grater, but we do think there are instances where the serial comma can be a useful tool to add clarity.

For example, when your list items contain an integral conjunction:
For breakfast, I had coffee, bacon, and a scotch and soda.
Or when your lists get really complex with multiple commas—like with geographic locations, or music credits—turn to the semicolon:
Andy and Maria's wedding guests came in from all over the world, including Johannesburg, South Africa; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; and Hackensack, New Jersey.
In other words, there is some flexibility around the serial comma. The most important thing with commas, as with other elements of writing and speaking, is to be clear and consistent.

Sources: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss; The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, Associated Press Stylebook by Norm Goldstein.

Music from this Episode: "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club; "Summer Breeze" by Seals and Crofts; "Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend.

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