Gramlee Blog

Using commas in a series

There is hot debate around using commas in a series of three or more items. The official name for this comma is the “serial comma”. It is also known as the Oxford comma.

Here’s an example of using commas in a series:
I will bring a sleeping bag, tent, and compass

The scholastic argument is over the comma after the word tent.  The Chicago Manual of Style mandates use of this serial comma. The AP Stylebook, designed after journalistic needs, does not require it. Further muddying of the waters occurs between American English and British English; the former typically uses commas in a series while the latter does not.

Proponents of using commas in a series state that it removes ambiguity that could complete destroy an author’s intent.

Here’s an example of the ambiguity created when a serial comma goes missing:
I dedicate this book to my parents, Hitler and Eva.

In this sentence, it is ambiguous if the names of the writer’s parents are Hitler and Eva, or if the writer means to dedicate the book to three sets of people.

Opponents of the serial comma state that such ambiguity can be removed by simply rewriting the sentence.

To Hitler, Eva and my parents.

Journals and newspapers were staunch opponents of using commas in a series because they valuable column space and ink.

Gramlee’s professional editors support the Chicago Manual of Style to always employ the use of commas in a series.  Instead of rewriting sentences, it is much easier to just add a trailing comma to a series.  Also, column width and ink are moot elements in the digital world we live in.

“Commas in a series” gone bad

British newspaper The Times once wrote an article about a documentary film on “encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”  As you can see, the omission of the serial comma makes it appear that Mandela is an ancient figure with odd fetishes.  (The Times’ article was not meant to be humorous.)  This and other mishaps related to the serial comma can be found on Wikipedia.