Harnessing the power of the serial comma

In the English language, we have innumerable ways to tie ideas together using the written word. But despite the comfort of having so many options, a multitude of potential pitfalls wait to play havoc with our intended meaning.

At Write, we’re fans of the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma. This clever comma can help us avoid some common pitfalls.

Image, Oxford comma poster.

Erasing ambiguity

Take for example the following sentence: While on holiday, they visited Teresa, my aunt and a friend.

This sentence could mean either of the following:

The two meanings are very different — in fact they make the difference between having visited one person and having visited three. If this sentence referred to the latter, a simple serial comma could have whipped its meaning into shape.

Clarifying meaning

Like many guidelines about English grammar, you’re not obliged to use the serial comma — it really comes down to personal choice, or your organisation’s corporate style. But we recommend the serial comma because it can help to clarify the meaning of a sentence: it helps to avoid confusion in lists of three or more items, and can be used before and and or.

Sticking to your guns

The best advice when deciding to use a serial comma in your writing is to be consistent. Once you’ve made up your mind, stick with it. You’ll soon notice the difference the serial comma makes and it might even become a habit.

Did you know?

The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma after its use by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

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2 responses to “Harnessing the power of the serial comma”

  1. I largely agree. However, adding the serial comma in the example still leaves two possible meanings. It could mean either
    1. They visited two people: Theresa, who is my aunt, and a friend.
    2. They visited three people: Theresa and my aunt and a friend.

    It might be better to reword the sentence to clarify who they visited.

    • melissamebus says:

      Thanks for your comment Stephen and you’ve made a really good point.

      With the English language being what it is, ambiguity can strike when we least expect it! It’s true that when writing it’s essential to always apply your brain as well as your grammar rules.

      But, as mentioned in this post, I believe you can help reinforce meaning by sticking to your guns. Once you’ve chosen the serial comma as part of your writing style, your readers will come to recognise it. And once they’re familiar with your style, they won’t have to search for clues elsewhere in your document to work out meaning.

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