Serial Commas are WrongIf Dexter was a punctuation mark, he’d be a serial comma. They’re both bloody and unnecessary but at times, get the job done. I’m not a fan of either, though. In fact, I pretty much despise the serial comma. As for Dexter, well I haven’t watched enough episodes to cast any judgment yet.

The serial comma is one of those crazy annoying loopholes of grammar that defies all rules. In other words, you can use a serial comma or you can leave it out. Either way is acceptable and technically correct. Why the Grammar Police were playing so fast and loose with comma rules centuries ago, I have no clue.

At this point, you either strongly agree with me, are ready to have words with me or have no idea what the heck I’m talking about and you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Dexter. For starters, let me explain what a serial comma is.

When listing three, 10 or even 100 items, it’s your choice whether to place a comma before the “and” near the end of the list. The following two sentences are both correct.

My favorite superheroes are Captain America, Spider-Man and Batman.
My favorite superheroes are Captain America, Spider-Man, and Batman.

See, that last comma after Spider-Man in the second example isn’t necessary. Again it’s not wrong, just not necessary.

My problem is that there are times it is necessary to clarify what you are saying. Take this example:

My favorite sushi rolls are tuna, salmon and avocado and eel.

Without a serial comma, that sentence is a little confusing. Do I like salmon and avocado rolls? Or do I like avocado and eel rolls? Technically, they’re all good to me! But in this specific case, I would put a comma after avocado, because I was really referring to a salmon and avocado roll.

And that’s exactly the source of all my comma hatred. It’s not necessary to use a serial comma, but it can make sentences clearer at times. Personally, I just hate how the serial comma looks in a sentence. It’s ugly and just gets in my way. It slows me down while reading, even though it doesn’t have to.

Part of my problem, I guess, is that I spent a number of years working as a magazine editor. Most magazines and newspapers have their own style rules, which generally dictate to not use a serial comma. So it’s clearly been ingrained in my head already. On the flip side, I’m someone who hates exceptions to the rule. I enjoy symmetry and if something’s not evenly balanced, my OCD will kick in and make it line up.

That’s the crux of my internal balance with the serial comma. I hate it. I don’t want to use it. I hate how it looks. But I also know that it’s a necessary tool… sometimes. And that’s the part I really hate. It can be used sometimes, not all the times. For consistency’s sake, you should just use it all the time then. Even if you’re using it unnecessarily like 80% of the time.

The always punctual Grammar Girl wrote a great article about the Serial Comma (go check it out!). She explains the whole thing much better than I ever could. And while she favors using the serial comma in all instances, she does point out that it is a style choice.

Where does that leave me? Angry, frustrated and dazed and confused…

How much do you loathe the serial comma?

14 Comments

  • Josh

    I always use the oxford comma. Just as you are distracted by how it slows down your reading, I’m distracted by how its absence speeds up my reading. A comma implies a short pause. It feels weird if the last pause is absent. Throws off the rhythm, like you’re rushing to finish the sentence.

    Also, when you speak aloud, you’re probably using oxford commas.

  • Ooooh, a grammar post! Me likey. :)

    I’ve always, always, ALWAYS used the Oxford comma (serial comma) in writing. Professional, personal, and whatever else. My college professors were adamant about its use and they’d dock points for not using them. In fact, now that I think about it, my high school English teachers were much the same way. Since I’ve had the Oxford comma branded into my brain for about 15 years now, anything else annoys me.

    I get tripped up without that additional comma. In the sushi example you gave, for instance, my eyes stopped on the “salmon and avocado and eel” section. Without an Oxford comma, my brain automatically wants to group the two together. I have to stop and think about whether you meant a “salmon/avocado/eel” roll, or a salmon roll AS WELL AS an avocado/eel roll.

    This issue doesn’t annoy me as much as apostrophe abuse, but that’s a story for another day… 😉
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    • Andrew

      Hey, Jill! Yeah, see, you had the opposite grammar brainwashing that I had. As a magazine editor, it was repeatedly drilled into my brain to never use that third comma unless absosmurfly necessary.

      And yes, apostrophe abuse (its vs. it’s) is one of my biggest!

    • Andrew

      Hi, Glori. Thanks for the comment! And yes, it really does depend on your preference. Like I said, it makes more sense to include the serial comma every single time, purely for consistency’s sake. But it just looks so very wrong to me! :)

    • Andrew

      See, that’s my problem, Samantha! I worked in magazine publishing where the AP was our bible. So it was ingrained in me to NOT use that third comma. Now everywhere I write, I get reprimanded for not using it, so to keep myself sane, I’m starting to use it loads more.

  • Mark

    I agree with Andrew, Kardon, Weston, Ochse and myself: the serial comma is useless. It’s because those people at Oxford and Harvard are snob, I think. But I agree a comma MUST be used in this example from Weston Ochse: “Kill him not save him.” because a comma before or after “not” makes a big difference, but this has nothing to do with serial comma. I’m happy I’m French since we have not such rules; ours are worse 😉 .

    • Andrew

      Mark, I’ll be honest with you. The limited interaction I’ve had with the French has not been kind. (I did the “backpacking through Europe thing after college and felt like every French person hated me…). So I’m quite pleased to see you in agreement with me! Thanks very much for your support!

  • I always use the oxford comma. I usually forget to use the necessary comma and my critics come back and let me know I left it out. I guess my brain doesn’t think that way. I don’t think in commas. So I guess the best way to attack the serial comma is use it everywhere and it is not wrong or right. Interesting post.

    • Andrew

      Hah. “I don’t think in commas” is my new favorite line! Your approach is pretty much what I’m trying to do now. I hate it but I can’t use it half the time, so I’m trying to use that ugly 3rd comma regularly. Thanks for the comment, Rudee!

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