My Strong Feelings on the Serial Comma

A lot of people have very (very) strong opinions on the serial comma. It’s absolutely the best way to avoid confusion, some say. It’s absolutely pointless and unnecessary, others insist.

I, too, have a very strong opinion about serial commas, though it’s not in line with either of the two warring camps. Here it is: I passionately, emphatically, vehemently don’t give a hoot. I care so little about this issue that I find it hard to believe anyone else does. For me, it would have to be a pretty slow news year for serial commas command even an ounce of ire (banking deregulation, anyone?).

The serial comma, in case you don’t remember, is the comma before “and” in “red, white, and blue.” If you pay attention to these things, you may have noticed that this comma shows up a lot in books and magazines, yet doesn’t seem to be favored by newspapers. True that.

 Books and magazines tend to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which is pro serial comma. News media and the public relations industry often follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which says not to use it. So in a newspaper you’d see “red, white and blue.”

In academic circles, I’m told, the serial comma reigns supreme. Its advocates, including the Chicago Manual, insist it can prevent confusion. And, yes, sometimes it can.

Take the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Sharon.” Without the comma, the speaker seems to be saying that God and Sharon are his parents. In other words, the coordinate noun phrase “God and Sharon” seems to be functioning as an appositive of “parents.” (An appositive, if you don’t recall, is just a restating of a noun that comes before. “I met with the CEO, Robert, before lunch.”)

Sounds like a pretty good case for the serial comma, huh? 

Not so fast. What if we replaced the plural “parents” with a singular noun phrase, like “my father.” Then our sentence would be, “I’d like to thank my father, God and Sharon.” A serial comma here would backfire: “I’d like to thank my father, God, and Sharon,” because it raises the possibility that “God” is appositive to “father.”

Another argument against the serial comma is that commas separate coordinate adjectives, that is, adjectives that could logically have an “and” between them. “The flag is red, white and blue” could be expressed as “the flag is red and white and blue.” In other words, the commas are standing in for the word “and,” so it doesn’t make sense to have one before “and” in “red, white, and blue.”

 Part of the reason I don’t take sides on this matter is that I edit in both Chicago and AP styles, switching back and forth sometimes several times a day. So maybe I’m too busy trying to keep track of which style I’m using at any given moment to care about which side is more right.

For folks not sure which style to use in their everyday writing, I recommend using the serial comma simply because it’s so much more popular. Most academic writing seems to favor it.

 But deep down in my heart of hearts, I passionately couldn’t care less.



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