The ‘Serial’ comma

There is a saying in the world of writers that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those that know when to use the serial comma and those that don’t.

The serial comma, sometimes also called the Oxford comma or the proper comma, is that comma that needs to go before the ‘and’ when you compose a sentence that contains a comma separated list. Incorrect usage of the serial or Oxford comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

The following graphic found on the Web provides a great example of this.

Oxford Comma

The first sentence above is “We invited the strippers, jfk, and Stalin”. With the serial comma used before the ‘and’ this sentence clearly indicates to us a list and tells us that at the party there were:

  • Strippers.
  • JFK.
  • Stalin.

In the second sentence—which contains the exact same words—the serial comma has been dropped. Now this sentence is no longer presenting a list; it is telling us that at the party they had strippers and the strippers were named JFK and Stalin.

This shows the care needed in use of the Oxford or serial comma.

Another example sometimes used in underlining the use of the serial comma is the statement “I’d like to thank my parents, Elvis, and Marilyn Monroe”. This statement clearly says his is thanking:

  • His parents.
  • Elvis.
  • Marilyn Monroe.

If we omit the serial comma this becomes “I’d like to thank my parents, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe”. Now it is staying something a little silly. It is saying he wants to thank:

  • His parents.
  • And a married couple called Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.

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