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Is it “red, white, and blue,” or is it “red, white and blue”?

Most professional writers will tell you that’s a matter of style. And they’re right. You may choose to place a comma after the next-to-last element in a series (hence the name serial comma) or you may choose to leave it out; neither practice is wrong. What you shouldn't do is use the serial comma haphazardly or allow your choice to give rise to confusion in your text.

Even if you choose, as a rule, to avoid the serial comma, there may be instances in which it must still be used. Consider, for instance,

 John, a teacher and a lawyer

Does this refer to three people (i.e., John and a teacher and a lawyer)? Or is it one person (i.e., John, who is both a teacher and a lawyer)? If the former, the serial comma would make that clear:

 John, a teacher, and a lawyer

The serial comma’s use is commonplace in American English usage, though less common in English of the British variety.

Since, in our editing, we try to bring consistency to the use (or nonuse) of the serial comma to the extent possible without causing confusion, I often get asked about the pros and cons of its use. The biggest advantage to the use of the serial comma is clarity: when all of the elements in a series are separated by commas, there is less chance of ambiguity in the list. For example, if I am listing the kinds of sandwiches I’m making for lunch, only the serial comma ensures that it’s clear what I’m actually serving. Consider:

 Ham, peanut butter and banana and jelly

Without the serial comma, this may mean:

·         Ham

·         Peanut butter and banana

·         Jelly

 

Or it may mean:

·         Ham

·         Peanut butter

·         Banana and jelly

 

In fact, though I wouldn’t want to try it, without the serial comma it could even mean just two kinds of sandwiches:

·         Ham, peanut butter, and banana

·         Jelly

 

With the serial comma, the ambiguity is removed:

 Ham, peanut butter and banana, and jelly

The strongest reason for ordinarily omitting the serial comma is to conserve space. In fact, it is from the world of newspaper writing that the practice seems to have taken its root in the United States. Among others, the practice of avoiding the serial comma is advocated by the Associated Press Stylebook and the New York Times, along with a number of leading British and Australian stylebooks. In favor of using the serial comma are, among others, the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA Manual, the AMA Manual of Style, the U.S. Government Printing Office, and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. 

All things being equal, I’m inclined to recommend the serial comma’s use. However, rest assured that—as long as your intended meaning is clear—neither its use nor its nonuse is really wrong.

 

This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date. 

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