Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Use of Commas in Lists - The Serial Comma

The use of the comma eludes many people and I’m not immune to demise due to commas. I have a bone to pick with them. They caused me quite a stir when I returned to college and was forced to spend hours upon hours in the English help lab learning about those pesky creatures. Some things were practically beaten into my head as a result. Still, all these years later, I fight with commas.

I grew up with the understanding, and had it drilled into my brain in later years, that when writing a list you separate all items with a comma. Even during student teaching I taught fourth graders a lesson on commas in lists. I was taught that lists should look like the following.
“The colors of the American flag are red, white, and blue.”

Simple and straight forward.

Then my daughter came home not long ago and informed me that the comma after white is no longer necessary. What?!?! Are they trying to confuse me and drive me insane? Yes, I’m convinced that whoever it is in charge of comma rules is trying to make me loony.

So the sentence should read: “The colors of the American flag are red, white and blue.”

And, it’s not just my daughter saying this. I run across it all the time. I have several critique partners who insist on doing it this “new” way. Although, is it really new?

To make matters worse I asked my daughter if she’s still being taught this way and she replied, “Honestly, it depends on the teacher.” Then she added that her current English teacher says that technically it should read, “The colors of the American flag are red, white, blue.” Arrggghhhh! 
So, I did some digging. Yup, I dusted off my Strunk & White and Eats Shoots & Leaves books, literally.  Both books agree on one thing and call this comma the “serial comma.” After that, they take different routes.

In Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style they conclude that indeed a list would read as, “The colors of the American flag are red, white, and blue.” That is unless it is in reference to a business firm, like say, “Bharathan, Miller & De Palma.” The comma would be left off after Miller.

In Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves book she says that it’s more common in American English to write, “The colors of the American flag are red, white, and blue.” Likewise, in British English it’s more likely to write it, “The colors of the American flag are red, white and blue.” And there are people in both countries that do it the opposite way of their respective language.

So, really are we talking new vs. old, or British vs. American?

Are you confused? Because, I’m still lost on this one.

Your Turn –> What are your thoughts on this serial comma?


  1. Bahaha, I am glad I'm not alone! This isn't something that I've only recently come's been coming up against me for years. I write like, white, and blue. But even while I was in school, my classmates and I would sometimes have differing opinions on the matter.

    But then again, does anyone really know all the rules to the English language? It's a very messed up language, to tell the truth. And some people have very wacky ideas about it...I once had a university professor tell me that the comma comes after the, like:

    She ate her sandwich and, she ran down the stairs.


    1. Haha - That's interesting with the "and." I've actually seen that before and wondered where the writer learned to put the comma after the and. Now I know! :-)

      I agree, very confusing language.

  2. Ah, the Oxford comma (a.k.a. the serial comma). I always use it. It helps to avoid confusion. If you google "Oxford Comma Cartoon" you'll see why.

    There are several great images proving why the serial comma is still necessary, at least sometimes. I won't list the sentences here, because they're much funnier with the pictures that illustrate the point. Suffice it to say, I don't care what any English teacher says about the "new" comma rules being correct now.(My mom's an English teacher, but she's on my side on this one!). If throwing in a comma can make your writing more precise, less inclined to confusion, then why would you ever leave it out?

    I look forward to reading any arguments against using the serial comma!

    1. OMG! I'm guessing I googled the correct cartoon. Hysterical! Such a great illustration for the confusion caused leaving it out.

      As long as it clears up confusion I'm definitely going to use it. (And as long as there's an English teacher agreeing, I've got an argument.) ;-)

  3. I'm not sure what's right, but I try to remain consistent. For me it's red, white and blue. So does that mean I'm a Brit? :)

    1. Consistency is definitely a good thing, regardless of which way it's used. You seriously have to google the cartoon Laura mentions above. It's great! :-)