Also known as the Harvard comma.1

In the English language, this is the comma that comes before the conjunction in a phrase that lists items serially. E.g.:

The comma just after the word "blue" is the serial comma.


  1. The implication here is that the comma is superfluous and snobbish.2
  2. I always use one, which is probably tiresome of me, but then I am superfluous, snobbish, and a holder of a degree from Harvard.3
  3. See! I did it again.

Oxford Comma

Oxford University have 'put their foot down' so to speak, and said that in their eyes the correct usage of a comma in a list includes a comma after the penultimate list item.

ie. One, Two, Three, and Four.
(As opposed to One, Two, Three and Four.)

I agree with the Harvard/Oxford Comma and have always used it because that's what made logical sense. The comma seperates items, and a list is read One......two......three......and four, not one......two......three and four. Clearly the 'and' goes with the last item, as opposed to the last two items being mushed together with an 'and' in the middle... Hence the penultimate item should be seperated from the 'and' through the use of a comma.

Having said that, I also know that correct grammar works in mysterious, and not always logical, ways.

eg:
asqui1 once said to me, "Son, when using an inline quotation, or brackets, you should include your period before the closing quote." Though I did not believe him because that seemed illogical (not to mention that he moved to Great Britain where they don't force you to study English towards the end of Secondary School.)

But clearly, a logical person would have said, "It is but logic that if the period is a part of the quotation is should be included within the quote marks, but not prevent the use of a period at the end of the sentence as per usual.". I must say that I do indeed agree with this view.

(I just found a node discussing this at: logical punctuation.)

Now, what about a list consisting of two items only?

One and Two.
Not: One, and Two.

That's what I say anyway. It's an exception.

But it is a fact that I never was too good in english class, and that I no longer study english, so feel free to administer hostile flames via the chatterbox. :)


1 asqui is not capitalised as it is one of few proper nouns in the Engligh language which must never be capitalised -- Thus forcing you to break the "Any proper noun must be capitalised." and "The first letter of a sentance must be capitalised." rules. But that's okay.

Let me begin by acknowledging my own biases on the matter: I use and like the serial comma, I have no use for the fiction or 'philosophy' of Ayn Rand, and I do not believe in God. That said, I am nonetheless going to argue here in defence of the hapless—and perhaps apocryphal—writer who, eschewing the serial comma, allegedly wrote the sentence below:

  1. I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Some people quote this sentence merely for amusement; others quote it as evidence that the serial comma is a Good Thing, even an indispensible thing. The point, of course, is that without the serial comma, the intended three-item list can be misread as a noun phrase ("my parents") with an appositive ("Ayn Rand and God"). Stick in the serial comma, and the ambiguity goes away:

  1. I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Those who insist on the serial comma appear to have a strong case, and they are certainly in good company. Here, for example, is what the Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed., section 6.19), has to say about it:

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities (see bibliog. 1.2), since it prevents ambiguity.

CMS does not explicitly mention the Ayn Rand sentence, but you can just see it lurking there, behind the words "prevents ambiguity." The trouble is, the serial comma does not always prevent ambiguity.

If we want to evaluate the utility of the serial comma at all seriously, we really have to consider more than one example. So let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that the poor author quoted above had had help from only one parent, rather than both. She or he might then have written (3), without the serial comma, or (4), with it:

  1. I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand and God.
  2. I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

Now all of a sudden it's the version with the serial comma that is ambiguous, and that gives the reader a chance to imagine that the author sprang from the womb of Rand. I concede that the appositive reading here is somewhat less salient, and a great deal less funny, than in (1), but the ambiguity is there.

The moral of the story is that in writing, as in nearly everything else, there is no substitute for judgment. The serial comma cannot save us from ambiguity, nor can its omission. The only way to avoid ambiguity is to look at what you have written to see whether it clearly and unambiguously says what you want it to say. If it does not, then you rewrite it until it does. (Unless, of course, you prefer to embrace ambiguity: "Let it have two meanings," jrn suggests in a /msg, "the world will be richer for it.") For instance, the two-parented serial-comma eschewer might want to go with (5), and the one-parented serial-comma user might want to use (6):

  1. I'd like to thank Ayn Rand, God and my parents.
  2. I'd like to thank Ayn Rand, God, and my mother.

Punctuation is a matter of convention, not of logical necessity, and a dispute between rival styles can seldom be resolved by reason alone. (There are exceptions in the extreme cases—for example, prose that does not use punctuation at all will inevitably contain more ambiguities than prose that does.) One cannot hope to be Right about punctuation in any absolute sense; the best one can do is be consistent, so that the reader will know what to expect. Me, I choose to use the serial comma, and so if you ever catch me writing the sentence in (1), then (a) you will know with absolute certainty that I mean it as an appositive, and (b) please shoot me.

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