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Using or Not Using the Serial or Oxford Comma 


A serial or Oxford comma is the comma that appears immediately after the penultimate item in a series or list when a conjunction separates that item from the last item. In ‘she wrote reviews, essays, and articles,’ the serial comma is the one that appears after the word ‘essays.’ Generally speaking, neither using nor not using the serial comma is incorrect in written English, but the presence of this piece of punctuation in a scholarly thesis or dissertation may depend upon the guidelines provided by the relevant department or the advice offered by a student’s supervisory committee. It is therefore essential when you are writing and submitting parts or all of your thesis or dissertation for commentary or examination to check any stylistic instructions you have been given for an indication of whether you should use the serial comma or not. If you receive no guidance on the matter, you will need to decide whether using or not using it will be best for the presentation of your work.

Traditionally, the serial comma has been used particularly in American English and by US publishers, but it is also the preference of Oxford University Press, which is why it is known as an Oxford comma, and some other UK publishers have adopted its use as well. This means that writing in British or American English does not necessarily help you decide whether you should use the serial comma or not. A personal preference for minimal punctuation might incline a student to eliminate the serial comma whenever possible, whereas the extensive use in a thesis or dissertation of in-text lists including compound items with internal conjunctions might demand the addition of serial commas to ensure clear communication. Either way, usage should be consistent when writing a scholarly text, and such consistency can also prevent confusion and enhance the comprehension of readers.

If you decide not to use the serial comma in your thesis or dissertation, keep in mind that there may nonetheless be instances in which you will need to add the comma to avoid ambiguity. Compound items listed in series present special challenges. Some compound items will be straightforward: in ‘she bought pencils, erasers and pens and ink,’ for instance, no serial comma is needed to clarify the author’s meaning. However, when a compound item joined by a conjunction appears before the main conjunction in a list, using a comma before that main conjunction can be helpful and even necessary. In ‘they brought paper, green and red pens, and pencils,’ for example, the serial comma is necessary before the final ‘and’ to avoid the implication that the ‘pencils’ as well as the ‘pens’ were green and red. If, on the other hand, the author intended to suggest that they were, the sentence would be better as ‘they brought paper and green and red pens and pencils.’

The lack of a serial comma may in some series suggest an appositional relationship where none is intended. ‘I love my parents, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’ without a serial comma could imply that the names Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are in apposition with ‘parents,’ indicating that the characters Luke and Leia from Star Wars are the parents of the author. Adding a serial comma clarifies the meaning of the sentence: ‘I love my parents, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia.’ Using a serial comma when necessary to clarify a potentially confusing series is not inconsistent with a general pattern of not using the serial comma, and a scholarly author’s priority in such cases should be clear communication.

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