Write It Sideways

Serial Comma Drama: Which Side Are You On?

All through school, I was taught that when one writes a list, no comma is needed after the second last item.

For example:

Please get milk, eggs, butter, bread, sugar and salt from the grocery store.

As far as I knew, a comma would have been unnecessary after the word sugar.

Now, I’m not so sure.

An Issue of Style?

This “unnecessary” little punctuation mark is called a serial comma (aka Harvard or Oxford comma), and it’s the subject of heated debate.

Different style guides (AP, Chicago, MLA, etc.) have different opinions about the use of the serial comma, but it seems the Associated Press guide–used by journalists–omits it in order to save space.

An Issue of Country?

I was relieved to discover I’m not entirely to blame for my ignorance; it seems my Canadian upbringing (and Australian residency) has something to do with it.

While the United States calls for mandatory use of serial commas, Wikipedia claims:

In Australia, Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom, the serial comma tends not to be used in non-academic publications unless its absence produces ambiguity.

One source also believes:

In the Canadian public education system, it appears that educators actually teach students that it’s wrong to use a serial comma.

Whew! I don’t feel so bad now. Both countries in which I’ve attended school, and worked as an educator, tend not to use serial commas.

The government of Canada’s Language Portal says:

While a comma before the final and is optional, a comma can alter the meaning.

They suggest the serial comma be used when it clears up ambiguity.

What Makes the Most Sense?

Mignon Fogarty–better known as Grammar Girl–believes:

Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis.

Now that I’m aware of the issue, I agree that consistent use of the serial comma avoids having to inspect your sentence to be sure the meaning is clear without it, and that’s why I’ve decided to use it from now on.

Part of me feels the serial comma is unnecessary in simple sentences, but another part of me thinks it’s too much trouble to check for clarity every time you might need to use it.

My questions for you are:

  1. In which country were you educated? (I’m particularly interested to hear from other Canadians and Australians to find out if their experiences were similar to mine.)
  2. What were you taught about the use of serial commas?
  3. What is your take on serial commas today, and why?

For more information on serial commas, check out the following articles: