Tag Archives: Serial comma

Self-Editing Tip #12: Commas > Series and Lists

6 Aug

The Comma Continued: Series and Lists

Commas are used in series to join three or more words, phrases, or clauses.

Ex. While on the playground, the girls used the slide, the boys used the swings, and the teachers chatted.

This is different than a list because the series becomes part of one complete sentence rather than an add-on to a sentence. In a list, commas are used to separate multiple words, phrases, or clauses which have been set apart by a colon (:).

Ex. The following ingredients are needed for our cake recipe: flour, baking soda, eggs, sugar, vanilla, butter, and salt.

Shown above is a simple example of a list of individual words. When listing phrases, clauses, or complete sentences, especially those containing commas, it is important to use semi-colons (;) in place of commas to differentiate between each list item.

Ex. To make a cake, complete the following steps: cream butter, sugar, vanilla, and eggs; mix flour, salt, and baking soda in separate bowl; while stirring wet ingredients, mix dry ingredients into batter little by little.

In both series and lists, there are opportunities to use or forgo what is called the Oxford Comma (or serial comma). This is the comma before the “and” which precedes the last item in a list or series.

Ex. For breakfast, I ate bacon, eggs, and orange juice.

Consider what the sentence would really mean if the Oxford Comma was removed.

Ex. For breakfast, I ate bacon, eggs and orange juice.

The debate on which form is correct, whether the semantics of the sentence are truly changed by this comma or not, and if the Oxford Comma will ever go away is a heated one. Many newspapers no longer use the Oxford Comma. Titles like The Economist, USA TODAY, even Oxford University’s own style book no longer use this punctuation. However, the Associated Press’ most current AP Handbook release still does not end this debate. Most writers outside of the UK, Australia, (if I’ve left out a country, add to this list in the comments section) and those in the newspaper industry, continue to punctuate in this manner. It is a personal choice. I strongly believe in the Oxford Comma. Decide what it means to you—a sensible breakfast or talking to your breakfast about breakfast?

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