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Serial Commas: Should you use them?

Updated on March 17, 2011

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"Commas: Serial Killers of Pace"

A serial comma, also called the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma, is the comma that precedes the last item in a list.

Example: The huge barn housed cattle, horses, and goats.  The comma preceding "and goats" is the serial comma.

Opinion varies on whether or not to use the serial comma, which ultimately makes it an issue of stylistic preference.  Some publications may have specific requirements in this regard, which you may want to investigate before submitting to them.  However, given the relatively even split of opinion on the issue, I'd advise you decide on your own preference, or that of your personal editor, if you don't have a strong opinion, and just stick with that.

As an editor, writer and reader, I have a strong opinion: I hate commas unless they're absolutely necessary.  Why?  Because I'm a big fan of maintaining a rapid pace in prose, and commas are anchors on the Ship of Pace.  Usually.  It's not quite that simple, since quick, choppy prose that makes the reader feel as if she has the hiccups is not good either.  We must mix it up from time to time to avoid creating the Lullaby Effect and putting our readers to sleep.

Thus, minimizing commas is a general rule—for me, at least—and like all rules of literature, not a 100%-er.

While in college back in 1979, I read an essay about the use of commas—not in a writing class, but in a psychology class, of all places.  I wish I could remember the name of the essay or its authors, or that I could find something on the internet about it, but I've been unable to do so (They wrote the piece in the pre-internet era.).  Thus, I will have to paraphrase in summary here.

1)       Three psychologists completed a 5-year study about how people read—not what they read, but how.  Their entire subject group consisted of American college students.

2)       Their study covered many different facets of writing, but for the purpose of this article, I'll focus on only that portion relevant to the use of serial commas.

3)       They determined that we process the written word primarily at the sentence level.  They went to great pains to explain that this didn’t mean words were unimportant—of course, they were.  Paragraphs and chapters were also important.  However, the sentence surpassed those elements in its impact on readers.  The sentence was the primary unit of measure, if you will, at which the reader derived emotional involvement, interest, curiosity, intellectual growth, etc.

4)       Because of that, readers were most satisfied when they completed a sentence and moved on to the next one.  They felt they were making real progress when they did so.

5)       As a result, readers were most frustrated by sentences that ran too long, or that offered too many breaks.  The breaks could take any form—commas, semicolons, dashes, etc.  If they got hung-up in a sentence; if they couldn’t escape it and move on to the next sentence; readers became agitated.

6)       Long, multi-segment sentences with multiple commas were particularly frustrating for them.

7)       For some readers, this reaction was a conscious one of which they were perfectly aware.  For most readers, however, the impact occurred at the subconscious level.  They couldn’t explain why they disliked certain pieces; they just did.

As I read that essay, and as I engaged in subsequent discussions about it in class, I came to a couple of conclusions.  First, the authors' study was well prepared, well presented and compelling.  Second, it struck me as logical.  After all, as a reader, I felt that way about commas myself.

Indeed, when I read A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, later that year, I shook my head at all the discussion about what a brilliant opening paragraph he offered.  Huh?  I hated it—not its message, but its structure: 1 sentence with 17 commas, and 1 dash thrown in for good luck.

My approach to commas is simple: you must use them when you must use them.

1)       To separate independent clauses

2)       To break after a transitional introduction

3)       To set off a non-restrictive clause in the middle of a sentence

4)       To set off an appositive, an aside or a parenthetic expression in the middle of a sentence

5)       To set off a name or title in direct address (dialogue)

6)       And much, much more.

#6 above is rather my point.  There are so many instances where you must use a comma, where you must force the reader to pause, that to add them where you don’t need them strikes me as foolish.  That's just my opinion, folks—well, mine and the authors of that study, not to mention a good percentage of everyone else.

If the conjunction prior to the last item in the list makes the separation clear and unambiguous, I prefer to leave off the comma.  If there is any possible confusion, I add the comma.

Example: The flag is red, white and blue.  This sentence will confuse no one.

Example: The four shirts in my closet were blue, white, black and green and yellow.  Uh-oh, this is a problem.  Regarding the last two shirts, is one black and green and the other yellow?  Or is one black and the other green and yellow?  The reader has no way to know unless you plug in a serial comma to separate them.

Thus, a little common sense goes a long way.  Use the comma if you must.  Cut the comma if it adds nothing more than another pause for the reader.  If you achieve perfect clarity without the comma, leave it off.

This, by the way, applies to all commas, in my opinion (based on the study, which I continue to believe in).  If you can restructure your sentences to eliminate commas, at least consider doing so.  If that change doesn’t reduce the impact of your sentence/paragraph, or disrupt the rhythm and flow negatively, go with the non-comma (or fewer commas) alternative.

Most readers will love you for it, because they love a quick pace.

NOTE: If you're writing a literary piece, you'll have a little more flexibility than in genre fiction, as reader preferences often vary from genre fiction (quick, wham, bam, pow) to literary fiction (make the words dance).

'Til next time, remember this: To write well, you must work hard.  To succeed in this tough gig, you mustn't be lazy.

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    • tim-tim profile image

      Priscilla Chan 

      8 years ago from Normal, Illinois

      Great tips. I took English 101 last year and learned a little bit of that. It is hard to use the correct punctuations:) Thanks for the great hub!

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