To serial comma or not to serial comma

The serial comma is the final comma between a list of items.  A serial comma-ist may write something like: I went to the store and got bread, apples, and eggs.

A non serial comma-ist would write:  I went to the store and got bread, apples and eggs.

Serial-comma activists insist that the serial comma is necessary to avoid ambiguities such as this:  I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God. Which implies that your parents are Ayn Rand and God.

However, I have noticed that my use of the serial comma on my website creates ambiguity:  Courtney Milan lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, a marginally-trained dog, and an attack cat. Which rather implies that my husband is a marginally-trained dog.  Of course, this ambiguity can be avoided by switching clause order:  Courtney Milan lives in the Pacific Northwest with an attack cat, a marginally-trained dog, and her husband. But I think I’ll keep it the way it is.

Mr. Milan is my favorite marginally trained dog!

9 thoughts on “To serial comma or not to serial comma

  1. FWIW – I read your bio and understood you had a husband and a dog and a cat. Probably because my eyes focused on the marginally-trained dog and my brain said “Oh, wow, she’s got one of those, too.” The husband and the cat – yeah, ok.

    I like to think that my dog has trained us well – so none of us are marginal :)

    Janet

  2. One of my publishers uses serial commas, and the other does not. Personally, I like them, but that’s probably just because I grew up using and reading them.

    You could say something like, “Courtney lives with her husband, their marginally-trained dog, and an attack cat.” Of course, that implies that the cat does not belong to you and your husband…but then, do cats ever truly belong to anyone?

  3. LOL. If my mother were Ayn Rand it would explain a lot. If my father were God . . . it would really raise a lot of questions, like, “Dad, how come I still have student loans?”

  4. Well, Courtney – you could look at it another way. If your father were God, it would answer a lot of unsolved questions about Him. Apparently student loans …not high on the list of divine priorities.

  5. I love serial commas. I guess it’s because I had it drilled into me as a child and because I have to drill it into my students, but to me a sentence looks naked without it.

  6. I’m a serial comma-ist too. However, I fear the serial comma and the apostrophe are headed for extinction. I also have concern about the comma after a noun of direct address. :(

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