JS Tip 30: From the Writing Workshops: Using the Serial Comma

Last week’s tip on commas prompted more writing questions. Sarah Black of Wells Fargo asked, “What about the use of commas after the word and when you are listing several items: ‘butcher, baker, and candlestick maker’ or ‘butcher, baker and candlestick maker’? Is there a rule or is it just preference?”

We shy away from the word “rules,” but there are some hard-and-fast principles about commas, and this one’s called the “serial comma”:

“Place a comma after each element and before the connecting word in a series of three or more elements” (The Reference Book, page 34, italics added).

“In a series of three or more elements, the elements are separated by commas. When a conjuction (a connecting word like “and”) joins the two elements in a series, a comma is used before the conjunction” (The Chicago Manual of Style, page 173, italics added). 

We suggest you use the comma to prevent confusion (or comedy). Notice this sentence:

“The house included a two-car garage, a kitchen with a laundry and a lake.” Whoa. Where’s the lake? In the kitchen.   

Or this sentence:

“In the room, we saw a man in a turban, a boy eating a sandwich and a parrot.” Whoa. Green feathers floating around the kid’s mouth.  

It’s also called “The Harvard Comma” or “The Oxford Comma” because Harvard University Press and the University of Oxford Press use it. Newspapers don’t usually use it, because it takes up space.   

This extra comma will never hurt you, and it will often help you. We strongly suggest you use it.