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The serial comma

August 22, 2011

Lately, I’m doing a lot of beta reading and I often find myself having to explain terms that I use without thinking. I might tell a writer, “Don’t reveal her backstory in one big infodump” or “This needs to be foreshadowed earlier in the story” or “Avoid head hopping.”

It seems writing has its own jargon. And when you add all the grammatical terms, things might get confusing for a new writer.

Have you ever heard of the serial comma, for example? If it sounds like something out of a murder mystery to you, please read on.

The serial comma, also called the “Oxford comma,” is the comma before the conjunction (“and” or “or”) in a list of three or more items. Those items can be words, phrases, or clauses.

Examples:

She bought apples, pears, and bananas.

She grabbed the raised fist, turned the man’s arm behind his back, and cuffed him.

Anne made breakfast, John set the table, and Bill made coffee.

Most publishers in the US, following The Chicago Manual of Style, prefer to use the serial comma, while it is less common in British English.

Personally, I prefer to use the serial comma because it can help to prevent ambiguity. For example:

She thanked her parents, Tom and Jerry.

She thanked her parents, Tom, and Jerry.

Written without the serial comma, she is thanking two people—her parents whose names are Tom and Jerry. With the serial comma, she is thanking four people. So unless her parents’ names are really Tom and Jerry, the serial comma should be used.

I’ll explain more of the writer gobbledygook in future posts.

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4 comments

  1. I am one for literary correctness; hence, I believe the serial comma always makes the sentence clearer.


    • I agree. Thanks for commenting.


  2. Thanks, Jae. Altho I was hoping for a murder mystery, I now know what a serial comma is.

    They get over used/abused a lot don’t they? To me, a comma is like a mental pause when reading. So by habit, when I see the comma, I pause for a second or so. When the comma is misused, it totally throws off the flow and the sentence makes no sense at all.

    Thanks for the explanation.


    • I actually think that teaching students to put a comma whenever they pause leads to a lot of comma abuse (commas within compound subjects or compound predicates or between subject and verb, etc.).



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