Use serial commas

The APA Style guide actually requires the serial comma, and other major academic style guides, such as MLA and Chicago, recommend it. The serial comma is the comma before the conjunction in a list (e.g. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle).

In some cases, the serial comma will be required even if you normally avoid it, since otherwise your list will be unclear:

He was unsure if the paper would require minimal revision, rewriting or rethinking or replacement.

Here, we know two of the last three things are paired and are, therefore, more similar to one another than the remaining word, but we don’t know which. Is it “rewriting or rethinking” that should be paired, or is it “rethinking or replacement” that should be paired.

The serial comma clears up ambiguities like this:

He was unsure if the paper would require minimal revision, rewriting or thinking, or replacement.

Another example is as follows:

He had to take care of two dogs, Jane, and Louis.

In this case, the serial comma is needed for us to know this is a list—otherwise we think that the two dogs are named “Jane and Louis,” as in “He had to take care of two dogs, Jane and Louis.”

A common defence of people who like to avoid the serial comma is that examples like these two could simply be rephrased to avoid the confusion, and this is true. But you will come upon instances in which rephrasing is unnecessarily laborious, and the simpler option is often to use the serial comma.

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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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