The Case of the Serial Comma

The Mystery Solved | A Puzzle Remains | The Wrong "Wrong Rule" | The Authorities Speak! | The Letters

The Mystery Solved

Dear Readers,

Many thanks to all who responded to my plea for help in tracing the origin of the Wrong Rule about omitting the final comma in a series ("red, white and blue" instead of "red, white, and blue").

Your letters and my further research have revealed this: The only authorities who advocate omitting the final comma are newspaper style guides (which wish to save column space) and some English writers (who waffle on the rule).

My original assertion stands, with minor qualifications: Except for journalists, all American authorities say to use the final serial comma: "He went to the store to buy milk, butter, and eggs."

The reason for the final serial comma is to prevent the last 2 items' being confused as a unit (butter-and-eggs).

A Puzzle Remains

I am still puzzled that the serial comma error has been so universally promulgated. People who know nothing else about punctuation recite this error with conviction, which says something ominous about the state of English language instruction. Why have many English teachers taught this wrong rule? Are they truly unaware that press style is for journalists and that we have a wealth of better authorities for standard American usage?

People Know the Wrong "Wrong Rule"

Complicating matters, most people remember a misleadingly simplified version of the wrong rule: "You don't need a comma before and." This assumption leads people to make yet another punctuation error — to omit the necessary comma in a compound sentence, as these examples illustrate.

For the record, I include the original letter and my response, as well as several subsequent letters, which enlightened me and inspired my further study. But first, here is what the authorities have to say.

Authorities on the Serial Comma

Wilson Follett | Kate L. Turabian | Chicago Manual of Style | William Sabin | Council of Biology Editors | Strunk and White

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide. Edited and completed by Jacques Barzun in collaboration with Carlos Baker, Frederick W. Dupee, Dudley Fitts, James D. Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling. NY: Hill & Wang, Inc., 1966, pages 397-401.

Follett argues for using the final comma. He examines the reasons for the comma's omission:

    What, then, are the arguments for omitting the last comma? Only one is cogent — the saving of space. In the narrow width of a newspaper column this saving counts for more than elsewhere, which is why the omission is so nearly universal in journalism. But here or anywhere one must question whether the advantage outweighs the confusion caused by the omission.

Having analyzed the confusion created by the comma's omission, Follett concludes:

    The recommendation here is that [writers] use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at a negligible cost.

This advice is unchanged in the most recent edition of Modern American Usage (NY: Hill and Wang, 1998) — even though its editor, Erik Wensberg, substantially revised many of the work's other prescriptions.  

Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 5th Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, Chapter 3.68:

    A series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses (like this) takes a comma between each of the elements and before a conjunction separating the last two:
Dishes had been broken, cutlery lost, and carpets damaged.

Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, Chapter 5.5:

    In a series consisting of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction . . .:
Attending the conference were Farmer, Johnson, and Kendrick.
We have a choice of copper, silver, or gold.

William Sabin, Gregg Reference Manual, 8th Edition, New York: Glencoe, 1993, paragraph 162:

    When three or more items are listed in a series, and the last item is preceded by and, or, or nor, place a comma before the conjunction as well as between the other items.
Study the rules for the use of the comma, the semicolon, and the colon.

Council of Biology Editors, Scientific Style and Format, 6th Edition, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994, Chapter 4.15.6:

    To separate the elements (words, phrases, clauses) or a simple series of more than 2 elements. A comma should precede a closing "and" or "or." This rule applies to adjectives each modifying the following noun.
The tomatoes, beans, and peppers were planted in April.

[Note: They acknowledge but discourage the omission of the final comma by some writers.]

Strunk and White, Elements of Style, 2nd Edition, New York: Macmillan, 1972, Chapter I. Elementary Rules of Usage, Rule 2:

    In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write:
Red, white, and blue
Gold, silver, or copper

He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

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The Letters

Dear Miss Grammar,

When I was in school, I was taught not to use the comma in a string of words before the "and." For example: He went to the store to buy milk, butter and eggs.

However, now I've noticed in my children's books they are using the comma before the "and." Has grammar changed in the last 20 years or what?
— Stumped

Dear Stumped,

We would like to track down the source of the misguided instruction you and thousands of our students received about omitting the final comma in a series. All authorities these days (and for many years, one must add) teach otherwise: "He went to the store to buy milk, butter, and eggs." The reason for the final serial comma is to prevent the last 2 items being confused as a unit (butter-and-eggs).

Yours is a recurring question, both in our writing classes and to "Miss Grammar." I just wish I knew how it got started. Did some teacher think it was "cool" or somehow efficient to leave the final comma out? My associates and I have searched through dozens of texts to find the source of this persistent non-sense, but without success so far.

Thank you for writing.
Miss Grammar

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Dear Dr. Moody,

Regarding the lack of a final comma in a series, you wrote: "I just wish I knew how it got started. Did some teacher think it was 'cool' or somehow efficient to leave the final comma out? My associates and I have searched through dozens of texts to find the source of this persistent non-sense, but without success so far."

One of your culprits is the Associated Press Stylebook (p. 274). "Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue."

Personally, my flag is red, white, and blue.

Your web page is great, by the way.

Phil Anthony
Director, System Resources

Bless you! Many thanks for solving this mystery — and for your kind words about my site.


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Dear Miss Grammar,

I am new to the Internet and am so happy to find these wonderful grammar sites on the Web. I enjoyed yours very much, but I have a question/comment. I work in an advertising agency as a proofreader. I am constantly looking up the answers to my grammatical queries. I recently purchased a very good reference book titled: Grammatically Correct - The Writer's Essential Guide to punctuation, spelling, style, usage and grammar. I am sure the title itself has made you cringe, as the disputable serial comma is missing. I read your answer to someone's query on your Web site regarding the use or misuse of the serial comma. You were quite adamant that it should always be used. However, I am finding in more and more reference books that it describes the writer's choice as one of style. In addition, I am noticing that it is being used much less frequently in everything from magazines to signs. Perhaps this is simply another example of grammar as a living thing, constantly changing. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this. Thank you.


Portsmouth, NH

Dear KN,

Thank you for writing. As for my adamant stance, please look at the references I cite: The Chicago Manual of Style, Follett's Modern American Usage, Strunk and White, the Gregg Reference Manual, Scientific Style and Format. The applicable passages are quoted and referenced from the latest editions. One does not argue against such authorities.

These are among the highest authorities on American English usage. I could list many second-level grammarians — such as the delightful Karen Elizabeth Gordon — who follow these authorities in their own prescriptions. Indeed, let me be so bold as to declare that any American grammarian who dismisses the serial comma as a matter of personal taste is plainly ignorant. They should be regarded with the same scorn as those English teachers who taught us that one inserts a comma wherever one takes a breath.

After much searching and many letters from thoughtful readers such as you, I have discovered only two sets of authorities that approve of dropping the serial comma: the Associated Press Stylebook (hence the comma's absence in many newspapers and similar publications) and British grammars (which waffle on the rule, saying to use the comma if omitting it would be confusing). So unless you are writing copy for the newspaper or are publishing in the UK, always use the serial comma.

Violating usage standards is scarcely a criminal offense. If you are a professional writer or editor, however, part of your job is adhering to the applicable standards. That the multitudes regularly violate those standards is no justification. Lots of people say "him and me went to see the game"; innumerable people write "it's" when they mean "its"; and many people who are neither journalists nor English drop the serial comma.

Miss Grammar

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Dr Moody,

Congratulations on a fascinating display. There is a small point I should like to draw to your attention about the use of the serial comma. You say in reply to an inquiry about the use of serial commas that you wonder where the notion got started that there shouldn't be any comma before the conjunction joining a string of words or phrases to the very last one in the series. I have several reference works stating that both 'A, B, C, and D' and 'A, B, C and D' are correct although in most instances the author recommends the former option. G.V. Carey, for example, writes in Mind the Stop, p. 65 (Sorry no underlining or italics on my computer for e-mail),'When all is said, this remains a matter for individual choice. But it is also a matter of general principle; you can belong to the 'final comma school' or the 'no final comma school', but having made your choice, you should aim at consistency.' Harry Shaw says in Punctuate It Right, p. 68,'Some writers omit the comma before the conjunction... its use is recommended, although it may be omitted.' Sir Ernest Gowers says in The Complete Plain Words, page 164, '...commas are always put after each item in the series up to the last but one, but practice varies about putting a comma between the last but one and the and introducing the last. Neither practice is wrong. Those who favour a comma (a minority, but gaining ground) argue that...'. Please do not think that I am trying to criticize the very interesting discussion you present in your pages.

Pontiac Municipality, Quebec,

Dear HM,

Thank you for your contribution. Some day, I shall update the site and note your remarks with those of others who have been kind enough to respond to my plea.

Dropping the serial comma seems to be (1) a journalism peculiarity (and the source of Harry Shaw's dictum) and (2) a British option (hence Carey and Gowers). Nonetheless, the current (and most of the old) American authorities I list at my site strongly support the final comma to reduce ambiguity. As one ever on the side of clarity, I endorse that rule.

However: Standard punctuation is a relatively new invention, whose practice varies among languages and even among dialects of one language (American and British English). Were I to emigrate to the UK — or Canada — I should have to relearn some rules: When in Rome . . ..


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Dear Miss Grammar,

I prefer using the serial comma, but my company follows the Associated Press Stylebook, which does not use a comma before the conjunction in a simple series. It appears to be typical newspaper style to omit the final comma.

A Reader

Dear Reader,

Thank you for the information. Unless you are writing for a newspaper, however, why follow AP Style? All other style guides advocate using the final comma.

Miss Grammar

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