Serial Decisions

The Oxford comma is one of the more confusing rules of grammar. That’s because it’s not really a rule. It’s more of a suggestion.

Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is used before the conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) in a series of three or more things: “Eggs come with a choice of ham, bacon, or sausage.” But you’d still understand this sentence just as well if that extra comma wasn’t there: “Eggs come with a choice of ham, bacon or sausage.”

The good news here: Using the serial comma is your choice.

The bad news: To coin a phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In other words, if you opt not to use the comma, you need to be on the lookout for instances where the lack of the serial comma can be confusing: “I love my children, Taylor Swift and Billy Joel.”

And even the Associated Press stylebook, which typically leaves out the serial comma, does call for its use in sentences where one of the elements in a series itself has an internal conjunction. Compare these three sentences:

For lunch I had salad, ham and cheese and crackers.

For lunch I had salad, ham and cheese, and crackers.

For lunch I had salad, ham, and cheese and crackers.

The moral of the story is this: The use of the serial comma is your choice—just be sure to use it wisely (and consistently)!


By Kristina Kiracofe Harwood, a Senior Editor with TalentMEDIA Services.

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