The serial (Oxford) comma

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!

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “The serial (Oxford) comma”

  1. 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.

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