The serial comma

September 15th, 2008

Arguing about where the last comma in a sentence is kind of thing people debate then they don’t have any real fears or pressing decisions in their life.

The serial comma, or the Oxford comma, is when you put a comma before the last item in a list in a sentence, usually before an ‘and’ or ‘or.’ For example, “I like apples, pears, and bananas.” The other way to write a list is to not have a comma for the last item in the list: “I like apples, pears and bananas.” This is supported by the AP style book, and thus my boss – so it comes up a lot at work.

The argument over proper usage get so heated, I’ve seen yelling matches and one of those pathetic wrestling matches between two overly-hip twentysomethings with no muscle mass. The band Vampire Weekend wrote a song about it (“Oxford Comma”) – even the Wikipedia article is overly complicated, though not as insane as the article for Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The fact that people fight over this is insane. And yet I can’t help getting involved: I support the serial comma fervently, and back my point up with the fact that most people do anyways (and occasionally friends who are better at debating). Essentially by having a comma separating every item in a list, there is less confusion about the last item.

How does one decide which is the best way? Simple: look at what everyone else is doing. If most people – especially the trend-setting writers – are using the serial comma, then let’s just agree that it’s the right way. Language is fluid after all; and the general idea is that proper usage has more to do with being understood than following old rules.

Good. Now we can stop fighting over this and just use the serial comma. And argue about more important things, like the best movie of 1998, the coolest character in The Sopranos, or whether it’s OK to text message a breakup.

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