The Oxford (serial) comma: Kill it or keep it?
Some of you know it as the serial comma and others know it as the Oxford comma. It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was originally used at Oxford University.
Now, if you already know what the serial comma is, you might have noticed that some of my posts have the comma while others don’t. You could say I’ve been at an impasse here because I have a foot in two worlds, both of which use a different rule. Those worlds, the world of AP style and the world of Chicago Manual of Style, will show up a couple times throughout the post as AP and CMoS respectively. Keep an eye out.
What is an Oxford (serial) comma?
When you’re listing three or more things, you’ll have an “and” or an “or” before listing the last noun, adjective, etc. Some use a comma before that conjunction and others refrain from using it. Neither form is wrong though one form is preferred over the other in different styles.
AP doesn’t use the serial comma, for example, while CMoS does. Newspapers and some business writers follow AP. Typically, novels, short stories, memoirs, nonfiction, etc. use CMoS, so you should see the serial comma when reading your next book.
Ex: I think I’ll have the turkey with carrots, potatoes and pudding. (AP)
I think I’ll have the turkey with carrots, potatoes, and pudding. (CMoS)
Why the debate?
You’d think it would be easy to choose one, but the debate is real and the reason is the same—ambiguity.
Interpretation is everything, so while AP says a sentence should say,
“She brought her friends, Jerry and the dog.”
CMoS suggests a serial comma, which reads
“She brought her friends, Jerry, and the dog.”
In the first sentence, it could be interpreted that Jerry and the dog are the friends she mentioned though it could also mean that Jerry and the dog are simply additions to those she is bringing. Maybe she hates the dog and maybe Jerry is her brother, not her friend. In the second sentence, Jerry is only one person so it’s known that they are additions to “friends.”
Debate solved, right? Wrong. Let’s try another sentence where AP lacks ambiguity with comma choice and CMoS has a similar fault from the previous example.
“She brought her friend, Jerry, and the dog.” (CMoS)
“She brought her friend, Jerry and the dog.” (AP)
I changed one word and made it singular, and that alone changed everything. Now, the serial comma makes it seem like the friend is Jerry and the dog is the tagalong. However, without the serial comma, Jerry and the dog include more than one being, so it’s known that they are separate from said friend.
What do we use?
If you’re writing a book, short story, or anything using the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s requested you use the serial comma. If you’re writing a news article, you’ll use AP style. Don’t worry. You won’t suffer ambiguity. There’s an easy fix with whichever style you use. Whichever you’re using, however, make sure you remain consistent. Don’t forget a comma if you’re not going to use it later. Otherwise, when you do reach an ambiguous sentence, your readers might get stuck. If you use the serial comma, for example, and they reach a sentence like one stated above, they might read it correctly because their heads already know the comma should be there, so they will fill in the blanks.
This isn’t always the case, so check out the quick fix.
Quick fix whether you use serial commas or not.
Surprise! Rearrange the list. If I say “She brought Jerry, her friends and the dog,” nothing is ambiguous. “Friends” is in the middle of the sentence and will lack misdirection.
Likewise, if we move “friends” and say “She brought Jerry, the dog, and her friend,” we also remove ambiguity. Notice that I placed friend at the end. That’s because if I placed it in the middle, it could be implied that Jerry is being described as the friend. See? Be careful. To ensure you don’t miss these, place your nonspecific nouns at the end to keep them from being descriptions. That’s all you can do unless you want to add more and say “She brought Jerry, as well as her friend and the dog.” That removes the need for a serial comma completely, but it chops up the sentence, too.
Use whichever you need to use, but remain consistent. If I’m your editor, I’ll likely add in the serial comma because the stylebook says so. That said, my articles are technically a form of “news” article; however, they aren’t news as much as they are about writing, so I might simply use the serial comma because I prefer it, and I’ll keep the AP style for news articles when I copy edit them. As for you, I hope this helped. If you had a preference, hopefully you now know that you can’t argue why your preference is right because it, too, can be ambiguous and, sadly, wrong.
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