You may not have heard about it before, but the Serial Comma is a hot topic among editors: either you love it or you don’t.
So, what is it all about?
The serial comma is used with a series of items. In fact, it’s the final comma in a series of items before a conjunction (and, but, or). Here’s an example sentence:
The belted kingfisher can be found near rivers, lakes, ponds, and marshes.
Without the serial comma, the sentence would read:
The belted kingfisher can be found near rivers, lakes, ponds and marshes.
If the serial comma is omitted, the last two items may appear to form one single unit, as in this example:
Oil-fouled common loons drown, die of exposure or are poisoned by the oil they swallow.
In this sentence it may appear that loons can “die of exposure by the oil they swallow” and “are poisoned by the oil they swallow.”
Adding the serial comma avoids that misinterpretation:
Oil-fouled common loons drown, die of exposure, or are poisoned by the oil they swallow.
Now it’s clear that there are three possible causes of death: 1) drowning; 2) death by exposure; and 3) poisoning by swallowing oil.
The serial comma is a matter of style: both the sentences with the serial comma and those without the serial comma are perfectly grammatical.
Whether you use the serial comma or not is up to you. What matters is that you’re consistent throughout your document, or—if you have a document that appears regularly, like a newsletter—that you are consistent from issue to issue.
The serial comma is replaced with a semicolon (;) if the items in the list have their own internal punctuation. The semicolon helps to set apart the items in the series more clearly than a simple comma would. Here are some examples:
Three types of egrets found in North America include: the snowy egret, found in the western United States; the cattle egret, found in the eastern United States; and the great egret, also found in the eastern United States as well as California.
The calliope hummingbird measures 3–3¼ in.; the ruby-throated hummingbird, 3–3¾ in.; the rufous hummingbird, 3½–4 in.; and the blue-throated hummingbird, 4½–5 in.
Note how these sentences would have been more confusing if we had used commas rather than semicolons.
Three types of egrets found in North America include: the snowy egret, found in the western United States, the cattle egret, found in the eastern United States, and the great egret, also found in the eastern United States as well as California.
The calliope hummingbird measures 3–3–3¼ in., the ruby-throated hummingbird, 3–3¾ in., the rufous hummingbird, 3½–4 in., and the blue-throated hummingbird, 4½–5 in.
The semicolons more clearly separate the items in the series.
Here’s a quick exercise to round off the lesson. Identify the serial comma in the following sentences.
1. As the ivory-billed woodpeckers retreated to the most impenetrable of cypress jungles, man followed with axes, guns, and bulldozers and destroyed the creatures, scarcely knowing they existed.
2. When it is feeding, resting, or aloft, the wood stork moves with an air of dignity and courtliness.
3. Shortly after the ice retreats, adult Pacific loons court, nest, and raise their young in double time—as quick as an Arctic summer.
4. The yellow-breasted chat may mimic the rattle of a kingfisher, the whistle of a yellowlegs, the cawing of a crow, or even the bleat of a car horn.
5. Some Canada geese may have as long as 20 years together before succumbing to disease, a hunter’s bullet, or a predator.
See answers below.
Image at top courtesy of Free Digital Photos. Please understand that I cannot vouch for the appropriateness of all images on their site.
The example sentences for this post were either taken or adapted from Cassidy, James, ed. Book of North American Birds. Reader’s Digest General Books. Pleasantville, NJ: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1990.
1. serial comma after “guns”
2. serial comma after “resting”
3. serial comma after “nest”
4. serial comma after “crow”
5. serial comma after “a hunter’s bullet”