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There is so much confusion over commas. I just can’t take it anymore. There is more than one type of comma, but for now I’m just going after the serial comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma). It’s something I battle every day!
The serial comma appears before the final conjunction in a list. Now don’t freak out just because I said “conjunction.” Conjunctions are simply words that join two or more words, clauses or phrases. In this case I’m referring to “coordinating conjunctions” and there are only about seven of them (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
But I digress…back to the serial comma…
Example: I like to eat cherries, apples, and pears.
“And” is the final conjunction. The serial comma appears immediately after “apples.” If that sentence came across my desk I would remove the serial comma without hesitation. I don’t like them one bit. One of the writers I work with is the exact opposite - he thinks they’re the cat’s meow. Fortunately (as well as unfortunately) there is no real rule as far as when to use these little buggers.
Even though there are no real guidelines regarding the serial comma, my co-worker and I have come to an agreement. We only use serial commas in sentences where not having them would cause confusion.
Example: My favorite oatmeal flavors are strawberry, apple and peaches and cream.
Now if you aren’t familiar with oatmeal flavors you might think that “apples and peaches and cream” is a flavor. Or maybe I’m referring to four different flavors? Is “cream” a flavor of oatmeal? Will we ever know?! But with a serial comma, things are a little different: My favorite oatmeal flavors are strawberry, apple, and peaches and cream. I now allow the serial comma, but only when it clarifies the sentence.
So why did my co-worker and I have a disagreement? The answer is pretty simple: Unlike my co-worker, I started writing and editing for news publications where space is uber important. Subtract five serial commas and that’s an extra word you otherwise wouldn’t have. The point is, neither of us are wrong. Writing varies from field to field.