Few language issues inspire as much fervent debate as the question of whether you need a comma before the last item in a series, also known as the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma. This is the comma that you sometimes see before and in lists, such as “I need you to go to the store and get bread, milk, and butter.” The Chicago Manual of Style, which is used by many book publishers and some academic journals, requires the comma. The AP Stylebook, which is used by newspapers and many magazines, omits the comma unless it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity.
It seems like such a trifling thing, yet it inspires impassioned debate among editors and writers on both sides of the issue. Last year the satirical news site the Onion joked about violence between the AP and Chicago gangs and wrote that “an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
But more recently, Walt Hickey at the FiveThirtyEight blog decided to approach the argument in a more scientific fashion, by polling readers on their preference. What he found was that readers are fairly split: 57 percent prefer the serial comma, while 43 percent dislike it. So while there’s a preference for the serial comma, at least among FiveThirtyEight readers, it’s not an overwhelming one.
Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute followed up by arguing that journalists should adopt the serial comma, after which Sam Kirkland posted a poll on Poynter asking if the Associated Press should make the switch. Surprisingly, a whopping 71 percent of respondents said yes.
But none of this was good enough for Poynter blogger Andrew Beaujon. He took to Twitter to lay out his arguments against the serial comma. The first argument—that the serial comma is simply ungrammatical—is actually the easiest to refute. He says that since you can’t write “My wife, and I drove to work” (note the comma before the “and”), you can’t write “Bob, my wife, and I drove to work.” But he’s simply presupposing that there’s a rule that you can never have a comma before a conjunction in a list, which is obviously not true.
He’s also presupposing that lists of two items behave exactly like lists of three or more items, but this is also untrue. I can’t write “Bob, my wife drove to work” (at least not with the intended meaning), but I can certainly write “Bob, my wife and I drove to work.” By Beaujon’s logic, the fact that you add a third item doesn’t magically obviate the rule that you can’t use a comma to join two things together. (Of course, this is done all the time in headline style, but it’s not allowed in normal prose.) It’s clear that the structure of lists changes a bit when you have three items or more, but it is not clear that there is any grammatical rule forbidding commas.
His next point, that “the sentences people employ to show the need for a serial comma are usually ridiculous”, is weak at best. Yes, it’s true that most contrived example sentences are a little ridiculous, but that’s just a problem with contrived example sentences, not with the argument for the serial comma. And consider this example: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” It may be a ridiculous sentence, but it’s real.
Beaujon’s final argument is that the serial comma arises from an urge to overpunctuate because we believe readers are too stupid to figure things out on their own. He says that “prescriptivism is not for [the readers'] benefit; its purpose is to make those of us in the publishing game to feel important and necessary”, but how is his own prescriptivism any different? He’s instructing writers and editors in comma rules and telling them that following his rule means they’re good writers. In other words, my writing is so clear that I don’t need a crutch like the serial comma; if you disagree, it’s only because you don’t trust readers and want to make yourself feel important.
But consider this: most people in both the FiveThirtyEight and Poynter polls prefer the serial comma. That means most readers prefer it. If they find it helpful, who are we to argue that it’s some sort of crutch of bad writers or source of job security for copy editors? And AP style does in fact use the serial comma to prevent ambiguity (though apparently not in the above example regarding the late Mr. Mandela), so what’s the harm in using it all the time?
Because the fact is that I often stumble over sentences that lack the serial comma. Even though I’m well aware that AP and other styles omit the comma before the “and”, I still tend to read “bacon and eggs” in “He made muffins, bacon and eggs” as a single item, not the final two items in a list. The sudden end of the list after “eggs” throws me because I was expecting something to follow it.
I suppose you could conclude that I’m an idiot that can’t work out writing on his own, but you could just as easily (and much more charitably) conclude that the serial comma really is helpful because it signals something about the structure of the sentence. In speech, we can rely on a speaker’s prosody—the rise and fall of pitch—to tell us where the syntactic units begin and end. In writing, we have to rely on punctuation marks to serve as signposts.
You can claim all you want that your writing is so clear that it can do without these signposts, but if you leave out too many, your readers may feel lost, wandering through meandering sentences without knowing where they’re going. Did your reader immediately understand what you wrote, or did they stumble, backtrack, and read it again before they got your message?
This isn’t to say there’s one right way to punctuate, and it’s to use the serial comma. As we saw from the polls above, opinion on its use is still fairly divided. But rather than accusing your opponents of distrusting readers or being self-aggrandizing, you could take them at their word. Maybe there really are legitimate reasons to prefer the serial comma, just as there are legitimate reasons to prefer omitting it.
I find the arguments in favor of including the serial comma stronger than the arguments in favoring of leaving it out, but I don’t pretend that my preference is an ironclad grammatical law or proof of my superiority. It’s just that—a preference. You are free to choose for yourself.