Commas lift, separate and clarify. When you have a series of single words, phrases or clauses in a sentence, commas need to get busy. Here are some examples of commas in a series.
- The kids made mud pies, finger paintings, brownies, and a colossal mess.
- Their parents shooed them outside, mopped the floor, washed the dishes, and wondered why they thought letting the kids do this was a good idea.
- The kids came back in with muddy shoes, dirty hands, runny noses, a stray puppy, and a few nightcrawlers from the lawn.
- Their parents threw the shoes on the porch, the kids in the tub, the dog in the shower, and the worms out the window. Was it bedtime yet?
The Oxford Comma
In the examples above, take note of the commas that follow the words “brownies,” “dishes,” “puppy” and “shower.” Each of these commas immediately precede the conjunction “and.” The comma that comes between the second-to-last element in a series and the conjunction is call the Oxford Comma, so named because of its use at the Oxford University Press. If you want to know more about this little devil and the controversy surrounding its use, here’s a good article to read.
I’ve included the Ox in the example sentences so that you can see how it’s used. But here’s the real truth. I never use it in my own writing. Never. Never ever. I will rewrite a sentence first if I have to. But most of the time, I don’t have to.
It’s become an obsession with me. Why? Spite, mostly. I believe that a dedicated writer can get along quite nicely without it. But that’s my personal view.
Truth is, most of the time it really doesn’t matter. If you like it, use it. If you don’t (and I definitely don’t), then don’t. But be intentional about it. Think it through, take a stand, be consistent and defend your view with all you’ve got.
Exercise—Each bulleted example sentence uses the Oxford comma in its series. But there some other series sentences in this post that do not. Find them. Note the omission. Rewrite them with the Ox and see if it makes any difference to you. (Look for the answers in the previous post—Comma Down! An Introduction.)
Answers to Previous Post–Commas in a Series: Adjectives Before a Noun
1. The quick, deep red fox jumped over the lazy, dark eyed dog.
2. That beefsteak tomato red sports car attracted a lot of attention from garden fresh vegetable lovers.
3. The little, lemon yellow goldfinch flashes neon in a yard full of plain, small, gray birds.
4. The rich, dark, expensive chocolate was not sweet enough for the immature, uncultivated, unpretentious tastes of the children.
5. Commas can be a pain, but our written language would be a mucus green, primordial, ooze-infested slush pit of a swamp without them.