But while some commas are optional, one must-have comma, ground into me since childhood grammar lessons, is the “serial comma.” This is the one that precedes the “and” or “or” at the end of the list, and is 100% non-negotiable (well, for me at least). For example, if one were going to pack for an exciting trip abroad:
Correct: She packed her stockings, garters, and heels.
Incorrect: She packed her stockings, garters and heels.So when Nik and I started writing together, I was amazed that he omits, more often than not, the serial comma. I know times are tough and we all need to economize, but there are many more commas I’d cut before the serial.
- Elements of Style - Strunk and White
For lack of a comma. One of the most famous examples of the ambiguity that can result from a missing serial comma comes from a documentary of Peter Ustinov published, somewhat ironically, in The Times (“Planet Ustinov,” 22 Nov 1998):
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”Not knowing how Mr Mandela occupied himself in his spare time, I can’t comment on his alleged collection. And he could've be a demigod, for all I know. But I’m fairly certain he wasn't 800 years old.
Happy to be home, he hugged his sons, Charlene and Abigail.
Touring the city, she purchased gifts for her mother, lace panties and cigars.
He visited his aunt’s house, a massage parlor and a bookstore.See? I could go on and on.
“Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma many cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”Or will it? Try as I might, I can’t seem to come up with an example where my beloved serial comma actually introduces ambiguity. Can you?