The Serial Comma– Why you need it (most of the time)

Red yarn, a box of paper clips, water glass, bottle of glue, (c) 2013 Jupiterimages

(c) 2013 Jupiterimages

Why do we need the serial comma in academic writing?

The serial comma is used for clarity.  Clarity is needed in academic and scientific writing.

  1. APA 6th Edition Publication Manual requires the serial comma. Since a good majority of our classes require APA Style®, it is a good idea to have students use it (see section 4.03, p. 88).
  2. Leaving it out can change the meaning of your sentence by combining your last two items.

Consider the following sentence:

Give me string, paperclips, water and paste to fix the kite.

Without the serial comma, the writing suggests that the last two items are intended to go together.  In this case, it means I want you to bring me some kind of water and paste mixture for fixing my kite.  Is that what I mean? (Note the picture above.)

3.  Omitting the serial comma can turn your verbs to nouns causing issues with your sentence.  Consider this example:

Megan jumps, dances, and plays.

With the comma, Megan sounds like a happy, carefree girl.

If we leave out comma, we risk turning our verbs into nouns meaning that Megan goes around jumping (or attacking) various dances and plays.

For more examples, see the links at the bottom of this post. (Leaving it out can really cause problems in a list of names.)

Sentences can, of course, be reworded to avoid the serial comma altogether.  But, when it doubt, it is a good idea to use them so the writer’s meaning is clear.

Why is this confusing for students?

  1. The Associated Press forbids the use of the serial comma, so students see the comma omitted in a great deal of writing every day.
  2. Students have been told to use it and not to use it, and they have often lost points for doing it one way or the other (or both).

Deciding to use the serial comma can be a style choice in some cases, but there are many cases, such as legal writing and scientific writing, that require it.

I am going to take a stand here and say that it is appropriate to have students use the serial comma for clarity in their academic writing.  (But, please help them understand why.)

What’s your preference?

Melody Pickle

For further reading

APA Style Blog on the Serial Comma

Grammar Girl

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One response to “The Serial Comma– Why you need it (most of the time)

  1. I am for clarity and think the use of the serial comma avoids potential problems.

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