Much discussion can be found on the internet regarding the pros and cons of the Oxford, or serial, comma. As a reader, I feel the argument is a waste of time. I don’t like ambiguity in the works I am reading, and the proper use of serial commas can resolve that.
When we have a list in a sentence, not using commas can create some interesting situations. Serial commas prevent confusion. In March of 2017, the New York Times reported that the omission of a comma between words in a list in a lawsuit cost a Maine company millions of dollars.
Consider the legendary book dedication often attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Parents, when named, are a unit. They will be written as Ayn Rand and God. In the above dedication, the author thanks three separate units:
By making the last two names a unit, the author introduced ambiguity about her parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as meaning that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents.
On a side note, that is actually rather hilarious because Ayn Rand was famously atheist in her beliefs. If she were to have had a child with God, I doubt she would have believed it. I'm not qualified to say whether or not God believed in Ayn Rand.
However, using the serial comma removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Lists can be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma. We can use other punctuation or none. We can set the words in a list apart from each other.
For example, we could show the above dedication in the following manner: To God and Ayn Rand and my parents.
Ernest Hemingway used the conjunction “and” in place of commas in much of his work. Most will agree, Hemingway’s work was readable.
Another famous example, reported by Wikipedia, was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:
Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall. This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard's ex-wives.
Although Merle Haggard has been married five times, he was never married to either Kris Kristofferson or Robert Duvall. A serial comma would resolve that inaccuracy:
Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.
Think of it as a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. I am buying apples and then going to the car wash.
Whenever there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them. Always include a comma preceding the word 'and' before the final item/idea.
I must buy apples, go to the car wash, and then go to the library.
Grammar doesn’t have to be a mystery. If we want to write narratives that all speakers of English from Houston to Brisbane can read, we must learn the simple common rules of the road. To this end, I recommend investing in The Chicago Guide to Grammar and Punctuation. It is based on The Chicago Manual of Style but it's smaller, and the contents are easier to navigate.
If your prose feels wonky to you, and you know the punctuation is weird but think a reader won’t notice, you are wrong. Take the plunge and open the grammar book. Look up the rules for punctuation that confuses you. You will become more confident in your writing, and your work will go faster. Editing will certainly go faster.
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Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.