The Serial Comma: It's Back
by Cherie Tucker
There was a window when people were taught to leave out that comma before the and when there are more than three words in a row. We have too many commas, they said. You can leave those out. However, the serial comma has made its way back into the realm of importance, especially for writers, so the reader doesn’t get to determine what you meant.
Consider the story that is told of Tom, Dick, and Harry, who inherited a million dollars from their aunt. Since the will was written to “Tom, Dick and Harry,” the judge awarded half a million to Tom and, absent the comma, considered Dick and Harry a unit, making them split the other half. It’s not wrong to leave it out. The Brits do it all the time, and journalists are taught to ignore it. The reader may even understand exactly what you said if you leave it out. On the other hand, the reader may do as the judge did and choose another possibility, changing your meaning irreparably. Putting the comma back in before the final and makes you the authority, not the reader.
If you have a situation where there are some couplets in your list, such as a choice among tuna salad, egg salad, ham and cheese, the reader may wonder if there are there three sandwiches or four. In situations like this, put the couplets in an internal position: tuna salad, ham and cheese, egg salad. Then there is no confusion, and you don’t have to go against Sister Mary Margaret, who told you to leave that comma out. Today, even she might agree that for clarity’s sake, you may put the comma in.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com