The serial comma

I know. Sounds a bit like “serial killer”, doesn’t it? My editor, the inestimable Marie-Lynn, returned my manuscript liberally streaked with red. “Inconsistent use of the serial comma,” she accused. “Do you know what I mean by a serial comma?”

Of course I didn’t. Life until then had been blissfully free of serial commas. But I hastily googled it.

And I found out that a serial comma is the comma placed immediately before “and” in a series of three or more terms. For example, a list of three dishes might be written either as “salad, fish, and fowl” (with the serial comma), or as “salad, fish and fowl” (without the serial comma). Thank you Wikipedia.

I asked Marie-Lynn if I could simply use it when I felt like, and leave it when I didn’t.

“Certainly not!” said Marie-Lynn. Apparently, you have to pick one way of doing it and then be consistent for your entire book. Grammatical inconsistencies can be distracting for a reader, if only at a subliminal level.

Marie-Lynn then informed me that I didn’t know proper use of a semi-colon. Semi-colons can only be used to separate two independent clauses, which means that they can stand alone as independent sentences. For instance:

I don’t know what a semi-colon is. Obviously, I know nothing of grammar.

Can also be written as:

I don’t know what a semi-colon is; obviously, I know nothing of grammar.

This eliminates the pause between the two sentences.

I don’t think I can bear to think about this anymore.

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: Thanks for dropping by!
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15 Responses to The serial comma

  1. Poonam Mehrotra says:

    even i’m enlightened!

  2. Hang in there and keep working at it – over time the pieces will fall into place like a puzzle. Helpful to remember that no matter how good we writers get at this grammar stuff, we’ll still need the editors to bring us down to earth. They are our safety nets.

  3. Hi Rati, first of all thanks for the like on my blog. Glad to meet you. I like to think there’s only one rule in writing and that is there are no rules. Editing’s different, I suppose. Great blog. I’ll be back.

    • R Mehrotra says:

      Thanks Michael. I think the importance of editing depends on what you are writing, and who the intended audience is. A poem, for instance, cannot be edited. To do so would be to kill it. A full-length YA fantasy novel, on the other hand, needs professional editing like a fish needs water.

  4. C H Griffin says:

    Ahhh, the serial comma! I too have been corrected on this by my agent amongst the sea of red streaks on my own manuscript. As a Canadian, I grew up learning you didn’t need the comma before the ‘and’. Yet another thing we do differently here than in the US.

    • R Mehrotra says:

      To say nothing of the spelling! And the use of em-dash and en-dash. All those little things one never thinks of while actually writing…

  5. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

    Hey, that one totally confused me too. It’s a habit now.

    Never use semicolons. Never saw the point. Yet. However every time there’s something I don’t see the point to, it eventually sticks its foot in front of me, and I fall flat on my face. I await the event with trepidation.


  6. Isn’t editing grand? 😉 . I personally love the Oxford comma (another name for “serial comma”), and I am Canadian. I don’t remember being taught not to use it, but those years are no longer in my memory. The editing courses I took in college all stressed the proper usage of the Oxford comma; however, so it’s not just a Canadian thing!

    Semi-colons can also be used in a series such as this:

    I have lived in Tokya, Japan; Toronto, Canada; New York, USA; and Paris, France.

    The advice I think all authors really need is to get a copy of a style guide, preferably Chicago Manual of Style. Most houses edit with this, and this great big bible of grammar will answer every question you have about how something should be written/punctuated.

    Thanks for posting this! Awareness is the key to the future of grammar! 😉

    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

      I also use the Canadian Press Style Book depending upon where I’m submitting.


      • R Mehrotra says:

        Both these resources are excellent. But nothing beats having beta readers. And an editor. 🙂

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter says:

        R Mehrotra,

        You know, I’ve never had a “Beta Reader” on anything I’ve sold. I do have editors, but the edits they are asking for tend to be fewer, and simpler now. Part of that is knowing these particular editors well enough to know what they are looking for of course.

        Editors can be useful. They can also be useless. It depends upon how well the editor knows the writer, and the writer’s style. I know someone who had an editor insist on a bunch of changes because “Americans wouldn’t understand what you wrote” which I think underestimates the intelligence of Americans (specifically the editor wanted a reference to the band Rush, which is being inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame this year, replaced by the Allman Brothers).

        To me that’s unwarranted interference with the writer’s vision.

        I’ll admit that I often provide a glossary. I can’t expect an editor to know French, Cree, German, Dutch, etc. words. Nor can I expect an editor to know the fine details of weapons circa 1909, or how a silver mine was operated in that time frame.

        Giving the editor that extra little bit, helps to sell the story.


  7. Belatedly in my defence 🙂 — the three Cs of editing are clarity, correctness, and consistency. (Some also say there’s a fourth: conciseness.) That’s why it’s best to pick a style re comma use and stick to it. There are pros and cons to using the serial comma or not. Note that if you opt not to use it, sometimes you’ll have to break your own rule for clarity. A famous example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah.” Omitting the comma after “Jesus” makes for unintentional hilarity — or possible sacrilege, depending on the reader.

    • I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, and use it just to be extra sure that things are logical and clear. The amount of times I have had articles I submitted to academic journals returned to me telling me to remove them doesn’t bear thinking about. Even after I pointed out some contextual ambiguities that might result. Keep fighting the good fight. We shall make the serial comma triumphant eventually!

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