The serial (Oxford) comma


in Geek stuff, Oxford, Rants, Writing

When writing lists, there are two different conventions for what to do before the final item:

  1. Lions, tigers and bears are charging toward us from all directions.
  2. To fend them off we will need rifles, pepper spray, and dynamite.

I strongly prefer the second approach, where the final item is set off with a comma, and not just because of where I did my M.Phil.

I have heard some people argue that the commas in a list are stand-ins for the word ‘and’. Instead of writing “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, we should therefore write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To add a comma between “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” while keeping the “and” is redundant.

I can see the point of this argument, but I think it takes too mechanical a view of language. The purpose of every element of language is to convey ideas and – James Joyce aside – it is usually best to do so clearly. The Oxford comma is very clear. The writer has a list of items, and each item is separated from each other item by means of a comma. In the event of a higher level list, with items separated by semicolons, the final semicolon would surely not be omitted:

His crimes were many: some related to property, like theft and burglary; some related to reputation, including many slanders; and some wanton violations of the Law of the Sea, particularly the disregard of established conventions for deciding maritime boundaries.

In this data-driven age, the serial comma is also in keeping with mathematical and computational conventions. The set of prime factors of my telephone number is: {2, 3, 11, 89, 709453}. Comma separated values are also a common way to store and exchange data sets.

My hope is that I have won over a waverer or two to the serial comma approach. If not, can we please at least agree to put only a single space after a period? We do not live in the age of typewriters anymore!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben Saunders November 4, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Presumably you’ve seen the strippers, JFK and Stalin thing?

I’m not convinced the numerical example you give is that convincing, since there are no ands in it, so if a comma replaces and it is appropriate to have one before the last item.

. November 4, 2011 at 4:29 pm

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