The Controversial Serial Comma (Or Oxford Comma): Is it Necessary?

Controversial Serial Comma.Is the Controversial Serial Comma or Oxford Comma Really Necessary?

To be perfectly honest, I was a bit wary to write this column. This is because I do not know of many topics in the editing and writing world that result in such heated debate as the serial comma.

So, why is the serial comma such a controversial topic?

Serial Comma Defined

Before we dive in, it may be helpful to define this term. At once termed the serial, or the Oxford comma, the style choice is defined as a last comma in a sentence containing a list of three or more items.

  • Example: Natalia ate one cake, one cookie, and one cupcake.
  • Example: The teacher brought their notes, books, and slides to the classroom.


Additionally, using the serial comma depends on style. Some style guides omit the serial comma, such as the Associated Press Stylebook (AP). Others explicitly call for its usage, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Modern Language Association (MLA).

Why is the Serial Comma Necessary?

Specifically, the main reason for its use is for clarity and to avoid any confusion in a sentence.

  • Example: We went hiking with our dogs, mom and dad.

It is unclear if the subject went hiking with their dogs and their mom and dad, or if their dogs are named “Mom” and “Dad.”

Serial Comma Controversy

Despite these positives, the use of the serial comma remains controversial. Those against its use focus on the fact that it is easier not to use it. In addition, they also mention the fact that it may cause an audience to unnecessarily pause when reading a text.

What’s My Take?

While it does depend on which style guide I am following, I am a strong proponent of the serial comma. This is for the same reasons that I am an advocate for the use of plain language. If it can help clarify the message and avoid confusion, that’s a positive in my book! (Check out my recent blog on “Plain Language Tips“!)

In the end, the serial comma remains a style choice, not a hard and fast grammar rule. However, as language norms and standards are ever-evolving, especially in terms of inclusive language and plain language, perhaps, favouring clarity of message for the widest audience possible, may one day become more than style.


Stay tuned for the next parts of this series, which will focus on the em dash and the semi colon in-depth, and offer tips, tricks, and best practices. Be sure to check out the previous blog on collective nouns!


What’s your stance on the serial comma? I’d love to hear your suggestions! Questions? Comments? For copy editing and stylistic editing projects, please visit my copy editing and stylistic editing pages, which list my experience and rates. Contact me for more information about your project needs.

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