The Case of the Serial Comma
The Mystery Solved | A Puzzle Remains | The Wrong "Wrong Rule" | The Authorities Speak!
| The Letters
The Mystery Solved
Many thanks to all who responded to my plea for help in tracing the origin of
Wrong Rule about omitting the final comma in a series ("red, white and blue" instead of "red, white, and blue").
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
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
||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
|| 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
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
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
The tomatoes, beans, and peppers were planted in April.
[Note: They acknowledge but discourage the omission of the final comma by
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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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
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?
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.
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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.
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 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.
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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
Pontiac Municipality, Quebec,
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
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.
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.
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