by Trista Cornelius
The Serial Comma
You’re writing a spellbinding short story, and it’s come to its turning point. The whole plot depends on whether Gertrude, the deceased heiress, has divided her estate evenly among her nieces and nephews or if she has distributed it unfairly, favoring the most conniving.
Your plot depends on how you, the writer, use the serial comma.
The serial comma — also called the Oxford comma, Harvard comma, comma in a list, comma in a series — simply means the use of commas to separate items in a list. Here’s an example:
Gertrude’s last meal included potatoes, peas and carrots from the manor garden.
Simple, right? Wrong.
At least it’s wrong for readers like me who care whether or not the peas and carrots were served together in one bowl or as two separate items.
So, if Gertrude was served THREE different dishes, you would have needed to write:
Her last meal included potatoes, peas, and carrots from the manor garden.
This might be important if you want the reader to suspect Raul, one of the conniving nephews, of poisoning Gertrude’s meal and hastening her death! Should the inspector study the bowl of tainted peas or the bowl of carrots?
However, the serial comma is more often left out than used. According to a journalist and an editor I interviewed, AP style (used for journalism) never uses the serial comma unless it’s needed for clarity. Chicago style, however, says to always use the serial comma.
Ultimately, what matters is your meaning. Let’s say Raul, the most conniving nephew, managed to distract Gertrude’s attorney while she wrote the will, which resulted in this:
Gertrude’s estate will be split evenly among Raul, Chelsea, Ronda and Dwayne.
Do you see how this benefits Raul and Chelsea? Without the serial comma, Ronda and Dwayne must share a third of the estate together while Raul and Chelsea each get a third to themselves.
Like the peas and carrots, Ronda and Dwayne are in the same bowl.
But wait, Gertrude sputters back to life, and because she spent thirty years as a grammar teacher before inheriting a fortune, her keen eyes target the missing comma, and with a wink to Ronda and Dwayne, she borrows a pen and sketches in the missing comma:
Gertrude’s estate will be split evenly among Raul, Chelsea, Ronda, and Dwayne.
Now Raul, Chelsea, Ronda, and Dwayne live happily ever after, each grateful to have one quarter of their Aunt Gertrude’s estate.
To conclude your story, do Ronda and Dwayne celebrate by sharing cheese, crackers, strawberries and cream? No, you decide to have them celebrate with cheese, crackers, chocolate, and champagne.
This is the first in a series of practical grammar tips every writer needs to know by Trista Cornelius, English Instructor, Clackamas Community College. She’s both the best and worst person to share these tips with you. Best because she’s made all the mistakes herself and learned the hard way. Worst? Same reason!