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The Serial Comma

The serial comma topic is no stranger to this site. Here’s a friendly, important, and overdue reminder from ProofreadNOW:

corn flakesCorn flakes, Wheaties, All-Bran? No, that would be the cereal comma. Let’s talk instead about the serial comma, which our standard guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, dictates is necessary.

Commas needed. Items in a series are normally separated by commas. (But when the items are themselves punctuated, use a semicolon between items.) 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 to prevent ambiguity. If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and.

  • She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.
  • The owner, the agent, and the tenant were having an argument.
  • I want no ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Paul played bass, Ringo played drums, and George and John played guitars.
  • JoJo mastered the slalom course, Jay did trick skiing, and Gracie did the ski jump.
  • The meal consisted of swordfish, red snapper, and both wild and farm-raised salmon.
  • Dori was barefooting, Jon was reading, and Wells was painting walls and fixing decks.

Comma not needed. In a series whose elements are all joined by conjunctions, no commas are needed unless the elements are long and pauses helpful.

  • Is it in Harrison or Naples or Bridgton?
  • You can turn right at the light and left onto fire lane 202, or turn left on Route 35 and right onto fire lane 201, or just ask a local person how to get theyah.

Semicolons within series. When elements in a series involve internal punctuation, or when they are very long and complex, they should be separated by semicolons.

“Etc.” and “and so forth.” The abbreviation etc. (et cetera, literally “and others of the same kind”) is traditionally both preceded and followed by a comma when it is the final item in a series. Such English equivalents as and so forth and and the like are usually treated the same way.

  • Cats, dogs, parrots, etc., in transit must be confined to cages.
  • The carpenter’s saw, hammer, level, and so forth, were found in the attic.

Source: The Chicago Manual of Style

RELATED: Comma Mistakes

AND: The Punctuation Therapy Group

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