The serial comma

Lately, I’m doing a lot of beta reading and I often find myself having to explain terms that I use without thinking. I might tell a writer, “Don’t reveal her backstory in one big infodump” or “This needs to be foreshadowed earlier in the story” or “Avoid head hopping.”

It seems writing has its own jargon. And when you add all the grammatical terms, things might get confusing for a new writer.

commaHave you ever heard of the serial comma, for example? If it sounds like something out of a murder mystery to you, please read on.

The serial comma, also called the “Oxford comma,” is the comma before the conjunction (“and” or “or”) in a list of three or more items. Those items can be words, phrases, or clauses.

Examples:

She bought apples, pears, and bananas.

She grabbed the raised fist, turned the man’s arm behind his back, and cuffed him.

Anne made breakfast, John set the table, and Bill made coffee.

Most publishers in the US, following The Chicago Manual of Style, prefer to use the serial comma, while it is less common in British English.

Personally, I prefer to use the serial comma because it can help to prevent ambiguity. For example:

She thanked her parents, Tom and Jerry.

She thanked her parents, Tom, and Jerry.

Written without the serial comma, she is thanking two people—her parents whose names are Tom and Jerry. With the serial comma, she is thanking four people. So unless her parents’ names are really Tom and Jerry, the serial comma should be used.




Created by Krystel Contreras & Jorge Courbis