Comma Now, It’s a Question of Style

commathumbWe writers have strong feelings about grammar and usage. The question of serial commas, for example, tends to generate a lot of heat. (So do hyphens, split infinitives, and contractions. But we’ll leave those for another time…)

The serial, or “Oxford,” comma is a comma placed immediately before a conjunction in a series of three or more words. For example, a list of three securities can be punctuated as “corporate bonds, high yield bonds, and bank loans” (using a serial comma) or as “corporate bonds, high yield bonds and bank loans” (without a serial comma).

Two of my clients have opposing views. One believes passionately in the serial comma because it “avoids confusion,” while the other says it is “redundant.” Style manuals differ as well. The Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage are against the serial comma, and The Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford Guide to Style require it.

Arguments against Serial Commas

  • They are redundant. The connecting conjunction, such as “and” or “or,” signals a separation between the final two items in a series, making a serial comma unnecessary.
  • They increase clutter. Serial commas take up space in a block of text. “Commas are not condiments,” wrote Keith Waterhouse in Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, “Do not pepper sentences with them unnecessarily.”

Arguments for Serial Commas

  • They add clarity. A serial comma separates a series of words, while avoiding the implication that the last two items have a stronger connection than they do. A famous example is an apocryphal book dedication, which does not contain the serial comma: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” This construction suggests that Ayn Rand and God are the author’s parents.
  • They mark a pause. Serial commas make written language match the cadence of human speech, improving readability.

I favor serial commas because they reduce ambiguity. They make sentences easier to read by making clear the relationship between the components of a list. Within an organization, I also think they keep everyone on the same page. No one has to determine when a serial comma is necessary (because sometimes they are). In my experience, many people are not skilled at making these calls.

Whatever you decide to do, I believe it’s important to establish and maintain an organizational style guide to encourage consistency. Your colleagues – and your readers – will thank you for it.


  1. Great post. I’m glad to see that there’s room for both camps with the serial comma!

  2. I’ve always been a fan of the Oxford comma, and I’ve had people tell me it’s “just not right” to use it. I’ll be sending them this blogpost to let them know that both ways are acceptable. Thank you, Eve!

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