To use or not to use a serial comma, that is the question for today.

Today we discuss the serial comma (also known as the “Oxford” or “Harvard” comma).  This is another topic that divides Americans—often setting journalists apart from their non-journalist citizens.  This is partly the result of differing opinions between the editors of the AP Stylebook and the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style.  According to the AP Stylebook (which journalists usually follow), the serial comma should not be used; conversely, the Chicago Manual of Style (followed by many non-journalistic writers) advises that the serial comma should be used.  The Scribe follows the practice prescribed by the Chicago Manual of Style, and uses the serial comma in all writings.

So what is a serial comma?  According to Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (4th ed. 2000), a serial comma is a comma used to separate a series of more than two items, e.g.: 

  • The American flag is red, white, and blue.
  • The French flag is blue, white, and red.

Use of a serial comma (i.e., a comma before the conjunction (e.g., “and”)) in a series of more than two items is helpful to your reader because it eliminates the possibility of misreading, e.g.:

  • I went to the prison and met the suspects, the warden and the minister.  [Wrong.]
  • I went to the prison and met the suspects, the warden, and the minister.  [Correct.]

But in general, don’t separate a series of only two items with a comma, regardless of the length of the items, e.g.:

  • Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred when it granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress and when it denied her motion to exclude witnesses and reporters.

Nevertheless, and to add a bit of confusion (when is English ever simple?), on rare occasions it may be necessary for clarity to separate even two items in a series with a comma, such as when the items themselves contain multiple elements, e.g.:

  • In support of its motion, Plaid Pantries cited Oregon and Washington cases, and state and federal regulations.

That is all for now …

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