Posted by: Jack Henry | January 24, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Commas Between Items in a Series

More comma rules? Yes. Commas are hard. (I think the wise sage Barbie said that.)

The rule I’m sharing today is one you’re probably familiar with, but it also comes with a little controversy. Oh, the drama of the comma!

What you need to know about this rule is that you place a comma after items in a series and also after each adjective in a series of adjectives. Here’s an example of each:

  • Before you adopt a dog, make sure you have enough time, patience, and energy.
  • The couple wanted a calm, loving, well-trained older dog.

That’s easy enough; so, what’s the drama? Maybe you’ve guessed: it’s the Oxford (or serial) comma (dun, dun, duuun!). OMG, you say. It sounds so ominous. Well, it’s just a comma but, oh, the arguments that have ensued. The Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the final item in the series (and before the word and). Some style guides say you should always use it (like our primary resource, the Chicago Manual of Style) and some say it’s not always necessary (like the Associated Press Stylebook). However, be forewarned, omitting this comma can cause confusion:

  • I love my parents, Daffy Duck and Katherine Hepburn.

Do you see the problem? My dad definitely sees the problem. He is nothing like Daffy Duck (although he has been likened many times to Yosemite Sam).

In case you’re wondering which camp we fall into here at JHA, we follow the Chicago Manual of Style. We add that precious little comma at the end of the series. We are Oxford compliant. We are serial comma conformers. Join us, won’t you?

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Extension: 765432

Symitar Documentation Services

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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  1. Donna — I’ve been reading your Editor’s Corner for, oh, probably a year or more now, and I always thoroughly enjoy it! I may be a techie geek, but I am also a fanatic about proper use of the English language … and about using it vibrantly, forcefully, and with enjoyable style. (Notice the Oxford comma in that last phrase!)

    This is the first time I’ve replied to one of your posts, but I had to say Thank You for strongly recommending the Oxford comma. I have been flummoxed for years about recommendations against it. It simply doesn’t make sense to omit it. There are the obvious examples (like the one you gave) where the lack of it causes real confusion; but to me it is always an impediment to easy understanding when it is missing. It slows down my reading every time when I have to look again to figure out the actual list of items in a series.

    And as I techie geek, I don’t even see a logical argument against the Oxford comma. It’s a printer’s convention, I guess, to save a bit of space, but what sense does it make from the standpoint of reasonable rules for written prose?

    So thanks again for this post, and for all your posts. Thanks for enjoying good writing and sharing that enjoyment with us. Keep up the good work!

    Roger Lange
    Chief Information Officer
    AmeriChoice Federal Credit Union
    2175 Bumble Bee Hollow Road
    P.O. Box 1429
    Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
    Phone (717) 591-1280
    Fax (717) 697-3713

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