The Serial Comma Explained (Video)

Love it or hate it, the serial comma evokes strong emotions. Emily Brewster is here to help you navigate them. Are serial commas and Oxford commas the same? What is a Harvard comma and how many non-Harvard alumni use that term? The answer is in this video.


Welcome to ask questions to the editor. I’m Emily Brewster, associate editor at Merriam-Webster.

We all know that comma separates items in a list. I love nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. But that last comma is shrouded in controversy.

Is it necessary?

There are some names for commas that separate the second to last item in the list with the last item introduced by And or or. It is often referred to as a serial comma. It is also known as the Harvard comma and the Oxford comma because it is used by publishers affiliated with those universities.

Serial commas are optional.

Publishers often give their opinion on whether to use it or not, and writers tend to feel strongly one way or another. That’s up to you, but be aware that not using a serial comma can lead to some ambiguity.

There is a fictional example of a book dedication:

I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

in that without the comma it would appear that Ayn Rand and God were the ones who gave birth to the author.

And then the actual example from the text of a documentary about the late Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

In many cases, however, no ambiguity arises:

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The house has a large yard, a small kitchen and few windows.

The recipe calls for sugar, butter, cream, salt, and vanilla.

Like a serial comma? Use it, or not.

Newspapers have traditionally not used it as a way to save space. Dictionaries have also traditionally taken care of spaces, but we at Merriam-Webster use serial commas. Nobody calls it a Merriam-Webster comma, but if people start, we won’t object.

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Categories: Usage Notes

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