Serial Commas and Serial Semicolons

By Erika Suffern

Serial Commas

Perhaps no mark of punctuation ruffles feathers more than the serial comma (also called series comma, Oxford comma, and Harvard comma). This comma precedes the final item in a list or series, before the word and or or. With the exception of newspapers, most publications use the serial comma, because it helps writers avoid ambiguity. Who would object to unambiguous prose? you might ask. Fair-weather comma users: publications that do not require the serial comma may use it only when misreading results. Proponents of the serial comma, like the MLA, would decry the inconsistency of the use-it-when-you-need-it approach and advocate using the serial comma in all series of three or more items or phrases.

Here’s an example where omitting the serial comma results in ambiguity:

Lia ordered three smoothies: strawberry, peach and mango and pineapple.

Without a serial comma placed after peach or after mango, it isn’t clear if “peach and mango” is one flavor or if “mango and pineapple” is.

Here’s another example:

Sam took his dog for a walk and ran into Deirdre, a friend and his dentist.

As written, the sentence might mean that Deirdre is a friend of Sam’s and also his dentist. But, alternatively, the sentence might mean that Sam met three people, not one: Deirdre, a friend, and his dentist. Without the serial comma, there’s no way to know.

Serial Semicolons

When items in series themselves contain commas, additional punctuation is needed to clarify the items. Consider this sentence:

The invited speakers are the association’s president, the vice president, the councilwoman, Suzette Tanner, and Walter McCarthy, the executive director.

Here, commas aren’t enough to clarify the items in the series: is the councilwoman named Suzette Tanner or are Suzette Tanner and the councilwoman two people? Adding serial semicolons provides clarity:

The invited speakers are the association’s president; the vice president; the councilwoman, Suzette Tanner; and Walter McCarthy, the executive director.

The semicolons make it clear that there are four speakers. To use serial semicolons, place them wherever you would normally place serial commas, to separate like terms. Here’s a more complex example where serial semicolons are needed:

In his report, Mr. McCarthy presented on the annual budget, the plans to hire a director of operations, a chief financial officer, and a human resources assistant, the fund-raising efforts of the development committee, which expects to meet its goal by the end of the fiscal year, the recent accomplishments of the committees on accessibility, research, and sustainability, and the restructuring of the product development team.

The addition of serial semicolons makes clear which items belong together and makes the sentence easier to read:

In his report, Mr. McCarthy presented on the annual budget; the plans to hire a director of operations, a chief financial officer, and a human resources assistant; the fund-raising efforts of the development committee, which expects to meet its goal by the end of the fiscal year; the recent accomplishments of the committees on accessibility, research, and sustainability; and the restructuring of the product development team.

Still not convinced of the importance of the serial comma? A court ruling in a labor dispute earlier this year upped the stakes of this normally low-profile punctuation mark. The decision centered on the absence of a serial comma in a Maine state law, which could end up costing a company millions of dollars in overtime pay to truck drivers. An appeals court agreed with the drivers that the missing comma rendered the interpretation of the law ambiguous, and the lawyer representing the drivers credited the absence of the comma with winning them the case (Victor). A win for the drivers and for champions of the serial comma!

Work Cited

Victor, Daniel. “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute.” The New York Times, 16 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html.

Published 15 June 2017

18 comments on “Serial Commas and Serial Semicolons”

  1. Good morning. In your final example of the use of semicolons, wouldn’t the first phrase be betters served by a colon as shown below?

    In his report, Mr. McCarthy presented on the annual budget: the plans (etc.).

    Thanks,
    Bob

    • Bob, thanks for your question. In the example, “the annual budget” is the first item in the series. Using a colon after that item would make the items that follow subordinate to “the annual budget” (parts or aspects of the annual budget), which is not the intention.

  2. “Lia ordered three smoothies: strawberry, peach and mango and pineapple.”

    This is obviously three drinks because it would be terrible style to substitute an “and” for a comma. Four drinks would be “strawberry, peach, mango and pineapple.” Therefore, the comma is unnecessary.

    “Sam took his dog for a walk and ran into Deirdre, a friend and his dentist.”

    If you put a comma after “friend,” it could read that he ran into two people. “Deirdre, a friend, and his dentist.” “Friend” now becomes a description of Deirdre. The solution here is to write the sentence unambiguously.

    As for Bob Grove’s (incidentally, I once had an incredibly talented English teacher by that name) example, the colon should go after “on.”

    I have never been able to discover a single example of a sentence which requires the Oxford comma. Those presented either require correct punctuation (usually a colon) or rewriting.

    • As an alternative in the first example, put “mango and pineapple” first. Thus, “three smoothies: mango and pineapple, strawberry and peach.” with no need for the Oxford comma.

    • I think you’re missing the point Fred. In the smoothie example, the drinks could be: strawberry, peach and mango, and pineapple; OR they could be: strawberry, peach, and mango and pineapple. Thus, you do need the serial comma to know which fruit is combined with which.

  3. Thank you! I learned the serial comma as a child but didn’t know it’s proper term. I’ve been using it for 30 years and nearly everyone has told me it’s unnecessary. Vindication!

    • Your example, “three smoothies: mango and pineapple, strawberry and peach.” requires the reader not to expect an Oxford comma in order for them to interpret “mango and pineapple” as one smoothie but “strawberry and peach” as two separate drinks and thus would disrupt a reader’s train of thought as they read. Is it really so much easier to entirely reword a list because of some vendetta against a comma you were told was unnecessary once than to press the comma key one more time? Requiring your reader to puzzle out your sentences based on their knowledge of the finer points of proper English punctuation is certainly not going to ingratiate you to them, nor will it encourage them to read further.

  4. In the following sentence, do we need the comma after “careers”? It appears to me that the part before it is not parenthetical, and if using the comma, we’d be separating a subject from its verb. So I would remove it. Thoughts?
    Both parents and young adults who may be facing new challenges like high school, college, or the beginning of their
    professional careers, will benefit from this unique and engaging talk.

  5. Erika, I was told that the MLA8 revision of serial commas is that the last comma before and is not needed anymore. Is that true?
    Thank you

  6. Wouldn’t Fred’s suggestion to put a colon after “on” in the example sentence be a non-standard use of a colon? I was taught a colon can only be used after an independent clause. It should not separate a preposition from its objects or a verb from its complements.

      • I read the “colon in a list” section of the link you posted in your response to Kim McDonald’s question about using a colon after “on,” and it contradicts your response. In all three instances, the link indicates or shows that the clause preceding the comma must be independent. Here it is, cut and pasted:

        Introducing a Series or List

        Use a colon with the phrases as follows and the following.

        To make a cake you need the following ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.

        Combine the ingredients as follows: first, cream the butter with the sugar; second, add the eggs and milk; third, add the flour, leavener, and salt.

        Use a colon before a series or list only if the words that introduce the list make up a complete sentence:

        To make a cake you need a few basic ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.

        If the words before the colon do not constitute a sentence, do not use a colon:

        To make a cake you need butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.

  7. Question: I remember being taught (granted, a long time ago) that when using serial semicolons in a list, one would use a comma for the very last semicolon. Not sure why now or in what context I was taught that. Is this incorrect?

  8. I haven’t been able to find an answer to this question: How do you end the series of semicolons if the last element isn’t the end of the sentence? For example, “He worked in New York City; Helena, Montana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Kansas City, Missouri, before settling down.” Should the punctuation after “Missouri” be a comma or semicolon?

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