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The Serial Comma: Lovers and Haters

Ah, the serial comma: to do or not to do. In this example, which is correct?

  • I like to pet kittens, puppies and bunnies.
  • I like to pet kittens, puppies, and bunnies.

Before fists start flying, let me say that, in my experience, there’s a clear divide between two camps regarding use of a comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items. “Highbrow” publications in one corner and, in the comma-hating corner, newspapers and most of my friends.

There’s a clear divide between two camps.

I reviewed a not-random sample of literature to prove my point, and here are the results:

Serial comma:

No serial comma:

Variety made up its own language—excuse me, slanguage—so maybe it made up its own rules for punctuation as well. And we wonder why there are so many errors in ad copy.

AP’s stance is to omit the serial comma except when it prevents misreading, and Chicago’s stance is to always include it—for the same reason.

Here’s what AP and Chicago have to say.

AP (p. 366): What? A comma where? No. Absolutely not. Well, sometimes.

  • I like to pet kittens, puppies and bunnies.
  • I had orange juice, toast, and yam and kegs for breakfast.

(This is the cruelty-free version of AP’s classic “ham and eggs” example.)

Chicago (6.18): Hells, yeah! Bring it.

  • I like to pet porcupines, pufferfish, and cacti.
  • I had rocks, glass shards, and sticks and stones for breakfast.

In short, AP’s stance is to omit the serial comma except when it prevents misreading, and Chicago’s stance is to always include it—for the same reason. Chicago, being twice as long as AP, has twice as much to say on this subject and offers several more variations of proper serial-comma usage on which the AP is mum (6.18–6.21).