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I have finally realized that people's beliefs about serial commas are as fierce as people's thoughts on anchovies and reality shows. You either love them or hate them.

No amount of arguing will persuade you to switch to the other camp. And that's OK. No lives are likely to be lost if you eat an anchovy or use a serial comma.

I happen to love anchovies, hate reality shows and hate the serial comma.

I've talked about the serial comma a few times, and maybe I haven't explained well enough why I don't like to use it.

The serial comma is used in a series of three or more words or phrases. I'll demonstrate the serial comma using cereal.

When I was young, I mainly ate Fruity Pebbles, Frosted Flakes, and Honeycomb cereals. (Thus explaining my numerous visits to the dentist.)

That comma after "Flakes" is the serial comma that causes the angst. If you like the serial comma, you use one there. If you don't, you don't. I don't.

As with many grammar guidelines, using the serial comma is a matter of preference. You listen to the stylebook that you follow.

Newspapers, in general, do not use the serial comma. The Associated Press Stylebook says to use a serial comma only when leaving it out would cause confusion.

Many book publishers use it, including Oxford University Press, which is why it's also called the Oxford comma. Other fans are Garner's Modern American Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style and many college writing guides.

And, yes, my friends William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, in The Elements of Style, dictate using the serial comma. Their reasoning is that leaving it out may cause ambiguity.

The people for the serial comma despise confusion. They cite an example such as this:

I want to thank my parents, Madonna and the pope.

They fear that if you say this to someone, he might believe that your parents are Madonna and the pope. In this age of the ubiquitous Internet, wouldn't everyone already know if you were, indeed, Madonna and the pope's love child?

Yes, I know lessons are taught with extreme examples, but could I be expected not to grab that opportunity for a joke? No.

Some legal handbooks support the use of the serial comma.

The Lawyer's Book of Rules for Effective Legal Writing by Thomas R. Haggard says it is needed for clarity. This sentence is used as proof:

Mrs. Jones left all her money to her three children: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

The book says that without the serial comma, it's not clear that all three kids get an equal share. It could mean that Huey gets half, and Dewey and Louie share the other half. That sounds ridiculous to me.

Adding a comma does not clarify at all that the three share the money equally. Instead, the sentence should read something like:

In her will, Mrs. Jones divided her money equally among her three children: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

As I have written before, I don't use the serial comma because I worked at a newspaper for so long. To me, the word "and" is a fine substitute for a comma. These two sentences have the same meaning for me:

The long, winding road leads to your door.

The long and winding road leads to your door.

I would, however, use a serial comma in cases where confusion may occur:

The sandwich choices included tuna salad, bologna, and peanut butter and jelly.

The serial comma is needed in that sentence to tell people that the peanut butter and jelly are together again, in one sandwich.

Sources: The Beatles,, Get it Write, Reuters.


ActiveStyle on 04/23/2018

Print Headline: No Oxford comma in newspaper style


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